WASHINGTON — A once high-profile California inmate imprisoned on murder charges for more than 30 years could be freed as a result of a Supreme Court decision Monday.
In a case that provoked unusually sharp public disagreement among justices, the high court declined to review a lower court's decision that threw out the murder convictions of Bobby Joe Maxwell.
Maxwell once was dubbed the "Skid Row Stabber" for his alleged killing of homeless men in Los Angeles. Now, unless prosecutors choose to retry him, Maxwell will be known as a man wrongly convicted based on the word of a notorious jailhouse snitch named Sidney Storch.
"Even the state conceded that Storch lied about a variety of material facts at Maxwell’s own trial," Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted Monday. "This powerful evidence supported Maxwell’s claim that Storch falsely testified about Maxwell’s supposed confession, using precisely the same modus operandi that Storch used time and again to falsely implicate other defendants."
Arrested in April 1979 and accused of killing 10 men in the late 1970s, Maxwell was convicted on two murder counts in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Storch, a one-time cellmate of Maxwell's who claimed Maxwell confessed to him, won early release in exchange for his testimony.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, enumerating the many problems with Storch's credibility, threw out Maxwell's conviction in November 2010. The state appealed. The Supreme Court's decision Monday not to hear the appeal means the lower court is upheld.
"I am greatly relieved; I've had this case for 23 years," Maxwell's Pasadena, Calif.-based attorney, Verna Wefald, said by email Monday, adding that "this long road to overturn his conviction is finally over."
Technically, Los Angeles County prosecutors now have two choices. They can give Maxwell his freedom, or they can try to resurrect cases dating back to 1978 and 1979. Practically speaking, a retrial could be very hard.
"The intervening loss of witnesses and evidence will likely make it impossible to retry," Justice Antonin Scalia noted.
Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito jointly issued an unusual public dissent from the court's decision not to hear California's appeal of the Maxwell case. Four justices must agree for the court to grant petitions and hear an appeal. Usually, though, justices do not issue written statements when a petition has been denied following a closed-door conference.
For Scalia and Alito, though, the Maxwell case had presented another opportunity to slap down the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit for its alleged activism in throwing out Maxwell's conviction.
"It is a regrettable reality that some federal judges like to second-guess state courts," Scalia and Alito wrote, pointedly adding that the 9th Circuit has been "particularly needful" of Supreme Court chastisement for overt activism.
While still state attorney general, California Gov. Jerry Brown had argued that Maxwell had filed his habeas corpus petitions too late. But in its 41-page decision in 2010, the 9th Circuit noted that the underlying case was unusually long and complicated.
Maxwell's trial lasted nine months and occurred five years after his initial arrest. His appeal took another seven years before he began filing habeas corpus petitions, and the evidentiary hearing ordered by the California Supreme Court took another two years. The evidence, moreover, piled up that Sidney Storch was a fatally unreliable man, a career felon and heroin addict who once impersonated a CIA officer.
"Sidney Storch," the 9th Circuit noted, "had a long and public history of dishonesty."
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