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LU Ref# CAI00002
November 11, 2020
Author Ref. No: Vol. 25 No. 12
LU Ref# CAI00002
November 11, 2020
Author Ref. No:   Vol. 25 No. 12

Robert C Phillips
Deputy District Attorney, Retired

“The next time a stranger talks to you when you’re alone, just look at him as if shocked and whisper: ‘You can see me?’” (Anonymous)
Writ of Habeas Corpus; Miranda Waivers; Incomplete Admonishments; Confessions & Involuntariness of ...
COURT CASE REFERENCE: Balbuena v. Sullivan (9th Cir. Aug. 17, 2020) 970 F.3rd 1176

Federal habeas corpus relief is available only when the federal court finds that a state court’s rulings were either (1) contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, or (2) they were based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding. A Miranda admonishment may be upheld despite an interrogator’s failure to include the fact that the suspect is entitled to the assistance of an attorney during the interrogation, depending upon the circumstances.  An involuntary or coerced confession violates a defendant's right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and is inadmissible at trial.  A confession is involuntary whenever the defendant’s will was overborne.  Voluntariness is determined by considering the totality of all the surrounding circumstances; both the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation. 
Defendant Alexander Balbuena, age 16, was a member of the Richmond Sur Trece (“RST”) criminal street gang.  RST was having problems with the notorious MS 13 street gang.  On January 16, 2006, MS 13 gang members shot and killed an RST gangster by the name of Luis Ochoa, also known as “Gizmo.” Defendant and other RST gang members were out for revenge.  The next day—January 17th—Jose Segura was sitting in his car with his girlfriend, Oralia Giron, and their two children (ages three years and three months), only two blocks away from the previous day’s murder.  Neither was a gang member although Giron’s two brothers belonged to MS 13. Several men surrounded Segura’s car; one of them telling Segura that they wanted revenge for Gizmo’s murder.  That man then shot into the car, killing Segura and seriously wounding Giron.  (Miraculously, neither child was hit.)  Witnesses told police that defendant and another RST gang member, Julius Stinson (a.k.a; Jujakas), were seen running from the scene into a nearby residence carrying pistols.  Following up on this information eventually led officers to defendant’s apartment where, armed with a search warrant, they found defendant asleep with his pregnant girlfriend.  The murder weapon was also found and impounded.  Defendant was taken to the police station for questioning.  In a 90-minute videotaped interview, defendant eventually (after initial denials) confessed to having been the shooter (see below).  Charged in state court as an adult, and with his videotaped confession being used in evidence against him, defendant was convicted by a jury of the first degree murder of Segura, the attempted murder of Giron, and street terrorism, plus related allegations.  He was sentenced to 82-years-to-life.  Defendant’s conviction was upheld on appeal in an unpublished decision (People v. Balbuena (May 5, 2010) First Appellate District, Division Two, No. A122043), although his sentence was reduced to 72-years-to-life.  The California Supreme Court denied review.  Defendant thereafter filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court, arguing, among other things, that the admission of his confession violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause in that his statements were obtained in violation of Miranda and by coercion, and were thus involuntary.  The district court denied defendant’s habeas petition (Balbuena v. Biter (N.D. Cal., May 25, 2012) 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73302.)  He appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.