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Styers v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 24, 2017

James Lynn Styers, Petitioner,
v.
Charles L Ryan, Respondent.

         DEATH PENALTY CASE

          ORDER

          JAMES A. TEILBRORG SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Court previously denied four of the claims in Styers' habeas petition and stayed the remaining claims pending issuance of a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Styers v. Ryan, 98-cv-2244-JAT. (Doc. 19.) The Court of Appeals issued its decision on December 30, 2015, affirming this Court's denial of habeas relief after the Arizona Supreme Court's independent review of Styers' death sentence. Styers v. Ryan, 811 F.3d 292 (9th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 1332 (2017) (“Styers IV”). The mandate was issued on June 21, 2016. This Court then lifted the stay and ordered Styers to show cause why the stayed claims should not be denied as meritless based on the opinion of the Ninth Circuit. (Doc. 22.)

         Styers filed a brief arguing that the pending claims are not meritless. (Doc. 25.) Respondents filed a response arguing that the claims are moot, procedurally defaulted, and an abuse of the writ. (Doc. 30.) The Court agrees that the claims have been rendered moot by the Ninth Circuit's decision and are meritless. The Court also rejects Styers's request to reconsider its rulings with respect to the other claims.

         DISCUSSION

         In 1990, Styers was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges and sentenced to death. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the murder conviction and death sentence. State v. Styers, 177 Ariz. 104, 865 P.2d 765, 770 (1993) (“Styers I ”). Styers sought federal habeas corpus relief, which this Court denied. (Case No. 98-cv-2244-JAT, Doc. 126.)

         On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, finding that the Arizona Supreme Court had violated Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982), by not considering mitigation evidence of Styers's post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because it was not causally connected to Styers's actions at the time of the murder. Styers v. Schriro, 547 F.3d 1026, 1028 (9th Cir. 2008) (“Styers II ”). As directed by the Ninth Circuit, this Court issued a conditional writ ordering Styers's release from his death sentence unless the State initiated proceedings to correct the constitutional error or to vacate the death sentence and impose a lesser sentence.

         The Arizona Supreme Court then conducted an independent review of Styers's death sentence pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-755. State v. Styers, 227 Ariz. 186, 254 P.3d 1132, 1133 (2011) (en banc) (“Styers III ”). As the Ninth Circuit explained, the Arizona Supreme Court “again affirmed the death sentence, after expressly considering and weighing the mitigation evidence to which this court's opinion referred.” Styers IV, 811 F.3d at 294.

         Following the Arizona Supreme Court's resentencing, and the subsequent denial of post-conviction relief, Styers filed another habeas petition in this court. (Doc. 1.) The Court granted in part Respondents' motion to dismiss, finding that some claims constituted a second or successive petition and staying the matter with respect to claims that could not have been raised in Styers's first habeas petition. (Doc. 19.)

         A. Stayed claims.

         In Claim 3 of his habeas petition, Styers alleges that the Arizona Supreme Court conducted a constitutionally insufficient review of his sentence and again applied an improper causal nexus requirement to his mitigation evidence. (Doc. 1 at 36-44.) In Claims 5 and 7, Styers alleges that the Arizona Supreme Court's failure to remand for a new sentencing hearing violated his right under the Sixth Amendment to a jury determination of aggravating factors and his rights to due process, equal protection, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. (Id. at 47-59.)

         These claims are mooted by the Ninth Circuit's decision in Styers IV, which affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court's resentencing of Styers. The Ninth Circuit first explained that a new sentencing by a jury was not required under Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 589 (2002), which holds that any fact necessary for the imposition of the death penalty must be found beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury, not a judge. 811 F.3d at 297-98. The court found that the Arizona Supreme Court was not unreasonable in determining that Styers' sentence was final prior to the decision in Ring. The court also found that the Arizona Supreme Court did not violate Eddings when it considered but gave little weight to mitigating evidence that Styers suffered from PTSD. Id. at 298-99.

         With respect to Claim 3, Styers now argues that the Arizona Supreme Court failed to consider additional mitigating information beyond the PTSD evidence, including Styers's age, clean prison record, and low risk of future violence. (Doc. 25 at 5.) Styers asserts that Claim 3 is now a “much different claim” than that addressed by the Ninth Circuit and the Arizona Supreme Court in Styers II, III, and IV. (Doc. 31 at 8.) The Court disagrees. In fact, Claim 3 does not allege that the Arizona Supreme Court failed to consider this additional mitigating evidence; instead, Styers alleges that the existence of the additional evidence was grounds for “requir[ing] a remand for proceedings before a jury.” (Doc. 1 at 56.) The Ninth Circuit squarely addressed and rejected Styers's claims of a Ring violation. Styers IV, 811 F.3d at 297-98.

         With respect to Claims 5 and 7, Styers argues that Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738 (1990), is no longer good law after Ring and the Supreme Court's recent decision in Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016). Clemons holds that an appellate court can affirm a death sentence by independently re-weighing the mitigating evidence against the remaining valid aggravating factors. 494 U.S. at 748-49; see Richmond v. Lewis, 506 U.S. 40, 49 (1992) (holding that a state appellate court can cure a ...


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