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Habeas Corpus Granted; State Used Wrong Standard to Convict

The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, reversing the federal district
court of New Mexico, held that a New Mexico prisoner was wrongly convicted
of child abuse when the state court applied the civil negligence standard
rather than the criminal negligence standard to secure conviction.
Valente Lopez was convicted of first degree child abuse in violation of
N.M. Stat. Ann. §30-6-1(C). He was sentenced to nineteen years in prison.
At the time of Lopez's conviction, New Mexico courts interpreted the child
abuse statute under the civil negligence standard, requiring no showing of
criminal intent.

While Lopez's case was on appeal, but before the appeals court decided his
case, the New Mexico Supreme Court decided Santillanes v. State, 115 N.M.
215, 849 P.2d 358 (1993). In Santillanes, the state supreme court held
that criminal intent and criminal liability must be shown. The court held
that its decision was not retroactive but would apply to cases on direct

Lopez amended his appeal in the New Mexico Court of Appeals to raise the
civil negligence issue. The state appeals court, however, held that Lopez
had not preserved the error in the trial court and, thus, could not raise
it on appeal. After exhausting all of his state remedies, Lopez filed for
habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied
relief and Lopez appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that Lopez had procedurally defaulted his claim
under Santillanes. The bar was based on an independent state law ground.
However, the court excused the bar as applied to Lopez because the law
regarding the bar was not firmly established at the time of his appeal and
the error he raised was a fundamental one -- that the state had used the
wrong standard of proof to convict him. The federal appeals court noted
that the New Mexico Supreme Court applied fundamental error review to
cases on direct appeal even where the error had not been preserved at

Reaching the merits of Lopez's claim, the appeals court opined, "the
evidence of criminal negligence [against Lopez] is decidedly
underwhelming." The court held that Lopez was convicted on a civil
negligence standard, and the conviction may have fundamentally violated
his due process rights. That is, the court had grave doubts that the error
was harmless.

The district court's judgment was reversed and the writ of habeas corpus
granted. The State of New Mexico was ordered to retry Lopez within a
reasonable period of time or be subject to further proceedings. This case
is published in the Federal Appendix and is subject to rules governing
unpublished cases. See: Lopez v. Williams, 59 Fed.Appx. 307 (10th Cir.

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Related legal case

Lopez v. Williams

[U] Lopez v. Williams, 59 Fed.Appx. 307 (10th Cir. 02/19/2003)


[2] No. 00-2247

[3] 59 Fed.Appx. 307, 2003

[4] February 19, 2003


[6] D. C. No. CIV-97-952-MV (D. New Mexico)

[7] Before Ebel, Anderson, and Kelly, Circuit Judges.

[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: David M. Ebel Circuit Judge


[10] Petitioner Valente Lopez appeals the district court's denial of his habeas corpus petition. *fn2 The federal claim raised is a claim that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated when Lopez was convicted of the crime of child abuse without requiring proof of an essential element of scienter. See Fiore v. White, 531 U. S. 225, 228-29 (2001). Lopez was convicted of child abuse under New Mexico law, which, at the t ime of his bench trial, required a showing of only ordinary civil negligence. He was sentenced to nineteen years' imprisonment. While his conviction was pending on appeal before the New Mexico Court of Appeals, the New Mexico Supreme Court interpreted the child abuse statute to require a showing of criminal negligence. The court of appeals, however, affirmed his conviction and sentence. Lopez claims that his conviction violates his federal constitutional right to have the State prove each element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. We granted a certificate of appealability on this issue, and we reverse.

[11] I. Procedural History

[12] Lopez was charged with first-degree child abuse in violation of N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-6-1(C). *fn3 Up through the t ime that Lopez was convicted and sentenced, New Mexico courts had interpreted the child abuse statute as a strict liability statute, which required no showing of criminal intent. See, e.g., State v. Lucero, 647 P.2d 406, 407-08 (N.M. 1982); State v. Crislip, 796 P.3d 1108, 1115 (N.M. Ct. App. 1990). After Lopez appealed his conviction and sentence to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, but before that court decided his appeal, the New Mexico Supreme Court decided Santillanes v. State.

[13] In Santillanes, the highest court of New Mexico held that "our interpretation of [§ 30-6-1(C)] requires that the term 'negligently' be interpreted to require a showing of criminal negligence instead of ordinary civil negligence." 849 P.2d 358, 362 (N.M. 1993). It went on to state:

[14] [W]e conclude that the civil negligence standard, as applied to the child abuse statute, improperly goes beyond its intended scope and criminalizes conduct that is not morally contemptible. . . . We construe the intended scope of the statute as aiming to punish conduct that is morally culpable, not merely inadvertent. . . . We interpret the mens rea element of negligence in the child abuse statute, therefore, to require a showing of criminal negligence instead of ordinary civil negligence. That is, to satisfy the element of negligence in Section 30-6-1(C), we require proof that the defendant knew or should have known of the danger involved and acted with a reckless disregard for the safety or health of the child. Id. at 365.

[15] Recognizing that its holding was a departure from previous judicial interpretation of the statute, the court went on to address the appropriate application of its decision to other cases. After analyzing prospective or retroactive application under Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U. S. 618 (1965), the court held that its decision was not retroactive and would be applied prospectively. Santillanes, 849 P.2d at 367. And, in the very last sentence of the opinion, the court stated that its decision would "govern all cases which are now pending on direct review, provided the issue was raised and preserved below, and all cases presently pending but in which a verdict has not been reached." Id. at 368.

[16] After Santillanes was decided, Lopez amended his appeal to claim that his conviction could not stand because the State did not prove criminal negligence, which Santillanes held was an element of the crime. The court of appeals, however, affirmed Lopez's conviction and sentence, holding that he was not entitled to the benefit of the Santillanes decision because he had not preserved the issue at trial. The court held:

[17] [A]lthough the standard of criminal negligence may not have been met in this case, an issue we do not decide, the civil standard was met. As we pointed out in the second calendar notice, the standard set forth in Santillanes does not apply to this case. This case was prosecuted and Defendant was sentenced long before the Santillanes decision, and there is no indication that the Santillanes issue was raised and preserved below. Therefore, the trial court relied on the correct standard and we will uphold its determination. R., Tab 1, Ex. F at 3-4 (citation omitted).

[18] Lopez then petitioned for a writ of certiorari, seeking review by the New Mexico Supreme Court; that petition was denied.

[19] Lopez sought state post-conviction relief, again arguing that his conviction violated his federal due process rights in light of the Santillanes decision. The state court summarily denied the post-conviction petition, and the New Mexico Supreme Court denied Lopez's request for review.

[20] Having exhausted his state remedies, Lopez filed a petition for habeas relief pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 2254 in federal district court. The magistrate judge recommended that the petition be denied; the district court summarily adopted the magistrate's findings and recommendation and dismissed the habeas petition.

[21] II. AEDPA and Procedural Bar

[22] If a state court denies a federal claim on the merits, we review the claim within the constraints of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). McCracken v. Gibson, 268 F.3d 970, 975 (10th Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 123 S. Ct. 165 (2002). We may grant relief only if the state court decision "'was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,' . . . or 'was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.'" Id. (quoting 28 U. S. C. § 2254(d)(1) and (2)).

[23] If a state court denies a federal claim on the basis of a separate state procedural deficiency, we cannot reach the merits of the claim at all unless (1) the state ground of decision was not adequate and independent of federal law; or (2) the petitioner has established a basis for excusing his procedural default. Id. at 976.

[24] And, finally, if a state court did not reach the merits of a federal claim, and our review is not barred by an adequate and independent state procedural disposition, we review the claim on the merits without constraint imposed by virtue of the state court judgment: we review the federal district court's legal conclusions de novo and factual findings for clear error. Id. at 975.

[25] In deciding whether the state court addressed the merits of Lopez's federal due process claim, we look to the substance of the state court disposition. Lopez argued on appeal that his conviction violated federal due process, in light of Santillanes' holding that criminal negligence was an essential element of felony child abuse, because the State had been required to prove only ordinary negligence, not criminal negligence, at his trial. The New Mexico Court of Appeals refused to apply Santillanes to Lopez's case and denied relief because Lopez did not preserve the mens rea issue at trial. However it is denominated, that is plainly a procedural default ruling.

[26] Recently, in Cargle v. Mullin we clarified when a state appellate court's rejection of an unpreserved claim is properly deemed a procedural default, even when it has not been explicitly designated as such by the state court. ___ F.3d ___, Nos. 01-6027, 01-6041, 2003 WL 170427, at *7 (10th Cir. Jan. 27, 2003). Although Cargle involved the slightly different context of appellate plain-error review, it is instructive. In Cargle, we concluded that:

[27] A state court may deny relief for a federal claim on plain-error review because it finds the claim lacks merit under federal law. In such a case, there is no independent state ground of decision and, thus, no basis for procedural bar. Consistent with that conclusion, the state court's disposition would be entitled to § 2254(d) deference because it was a form of merits review. On the other hand, a state court could deny relief for what it recognizes or assumes to be federal error, because of the petitioner's failure to satisfy some independent state law predicate. In such a case, that non-merits predicate would constitute an independent state ground for decision which would warrant application of procedural-bar principles on federal habeas. If the state procedural bar were then excused for some reason, the federal court would be left to resolve the substantive claim de novo, unconstrained by § 2254(d). Id. (citation omitted).

[28] The case before us, unencumbered by the extra layer of plain-error review, presents an even more straightforward case of procedural bar. Here, the state court summarily rejected Lopez's federal claim because he failed to satisfy an independent state predicate-he did not preserve the issue at trial. The state court's preservation requirement, a non-merits predicate to its rejection of Lopez's federal claim, is plainly an independent state ground that implicates procedural-bar principles on federal habeas. Id.

[29] The critical question, therefore, is whether there is reason to excuse the procedural bar.