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Penal Code § 1473(b) and False Evidence for Habeas

Penal Code § 1473(a) provides “[a] person unlawfully imprisoned . . . [to] prosecute a writ of habeas corpus to inquire into the cause of the imprisonment or restraint” for various reasons.  Under § 1473(b), a petitioner is entitled to relief where he or she can prove, by a preponderance of the evidence (In re Sassounian (1995) 9 Cal. 4th 535, 546-547), that (1) “[f]alse evidence” was introduced against him or her at trial, and (2) that the false evidence was “substantially material or probative on the issue” of his or her guilt.
Summary in 50 Words or Less: To prevail on a petition for writ of habeas corpus based on “false evidence” at trial, petitioner must show that the false evidence was “substantially material or probative on the issue” of his or her guilt.  In the following summary, this was not shown, although it was undeniable that the evidence at trial was incorrect in light of new science on fire science.
In our practice, we often receive phone calls from people who tell us the “want to reopen the case because we now know there was false evidence” admitted at trial.  This type of frequent call leads us to discuss § 1473 and the difficulty in showing that but for the false evidence, the outcome of the trial would be different. 

The following summary of a recent Second Appellate District Court opinion exemplifies this analysis.

Over 25 years ago, Joann Parks was convicted in Norwalk Superior Court of murdering her three young children (ages 16 months, three years old and four years old) by setting a house fire that killed them.  Her husband, who worked the night shift, was not home at the time.

This was actually the second fire that had started in her house.  Less than a year earlier, the house that she lived in in Lynnwood burned down with her three kids inside.  The cause of the fire was determined to have been accidentally caused by coiled electrical cord under a pile of clothing. 

When the second fire took place, investigators were a bit suspicious and examined the burned house in Bell closely.  Their analysis rather quickly determined that the fire was intentionally set by Ms. Parks.  Ms. Parks was thereafter charged and convicted of first-degree murder by arson.

In 2020, due to various scientific developments in fire investigation science and forensic methodology since her trial, Parks filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus under Penal Code § 1473(b), arguing that current scientific understanding of burn patterns and how fire behaves under certain conditions fatally undermines the expert testimony offered by the prosecution against her at trial regarding the cause and origin of the fire at Parks’ home.

She argued that the expert testimony therefore constituted false testimony under Penal Code § 1473(e)(1) and that there is a reasonable probability it affected the outcome of her trial, entitling her to relief under § 1473(b).  Her petition was brought on federal constitutional grounds as well, arguing that the prosecution presented its experts’ opinions as infallible truth, that the unevolved state of fire investigation science at the trial of trial prevented the adversarial system from exposing such testimony as flawed and unreliable, and that this rendered her trial so fundamentally unfair as to violate her right to due process.

Parks’ claims were not entirely unsupported, it should be noted.  The trial court held an evidentiary hearing at which several experts testified regarding modern fire investigation standards and science and how the expert testimony offered at trial two decades earlier fared thereunder.  Defense experts criticized of the prosecution’s trial experts and the prosecution experts concluded that the prosecution expert’s testimony at trial regarding the cause and origin remained correct even under modern standards. 

All defense and prosecution experts did agree, however, that the prosecution trial expert had been wrong in one respect: whether a “flashover” had occurred during the fire, something that would have affected his analysis of the fire scene.

The Second Appellate District, in reviewing this testimony, remarked, “thus, the same scientific debate continues today, only with each party’s position bolstered with today’s level of scientific knowledge.  Such a debate does not establish that false evidence was offered at trial.”  There was no mutually agreed upon industry standard, for example, or authority establishing that the challenged expert opinions regarding the cause and origin of the fire have been so “undermined by later scientific research of technological advances” that they constitute false evidence for the purposes of section 1473(e)(1).

For largely the same reasons, the Second Appellate District concluded Parks had failed to establish that the state of fire investigation science at the time of trial rendered her trial so fundamentally unfair as to violate federal due process.  Although additional scientific support for the defense expert’s testimony at trial would have been helpful to the defense in rebutting the prosecution expert’s opinion, the absence of such additional support did not “necessarily prevent a fair trial.”  Duncan v. Henry (1995) 513 U.S. 364, 370, fn. 1.

Consequently, the Second Appellate District denied the petition.

The citation for the Second Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is In re Joann Parks (2d App. Dist., 2021) 67 Cal. App. 5th 418, 282 Cal. Rptr. 3d 222.

For more information about false evidence and petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, please click on the following articles:
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