The Supreme Court has reinstated the murder conviction of the driver in a gang-related, drive-by shooting that horrified Seattle in 1994.
By a 6-3 vote, the court on Wednesday reversed a federal appeals court that had thrown out the second-degree murder conviction of Cesar Sarausad II.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the conviction because of unclear jury instructions. But the high court, in a majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said there was "no evidence of ultimate juror confusion."
"Rather, the jury simply reached a unanimous decision that the state had proved Sarausad's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," Thomas wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice David Souter said an uncertain instruction from the trial judge merged with a "confounding prosecutorial argument" that included a "clearly erroneous statement of law."
"In these circumstances, jury confusion is all but inevitable and jury error the reasonable likelihood," wrote Souter, who was joined in his opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sarausad was convicted for his role as the driver in the shooting that killed a teenage girl outside a Seattle high school.
Sarausad was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Washington at the time of the shooting. He drove the car from which Brian Ronquillo shot and killed 16-year-old Melissa Fernandes. She had nothing to do with the gang rivalry that led to the shooting.
Ronquillo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 52 years in prison. Sarausad got a 27-year sentence.
Sarausad admitted being the driver but denied knowing that Ronquillo had a gun, much less that he was planning to kill anyone.
The jury instructions at issue concerned whether, to be convicted of second-degree murder, Sarausad had to know that Ronquillo intended to use a gun and that someone could die as a result.