In Coleman v. Johnson, 556 U.S. ___ (May 29, 2012), a non-capital habeas case from the Third Circuit, the Supreme Court reversed a grant of relief under Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), for insufficient evidence to support the conviction. This is the second Jackson per curiam reversal of this term – see also Cavazos v. Smith, 132 S.Ct. 2 (2011) – although in this case, unlike Cavazos, there are no dissents.
The Court describes a Jackson inquiry on habeas review as “two layers of judicial deference.” On direct appeal, “a reviewing court may set aside the jury’s verdict on the ground of insufficient evidence only if no rational trier of fact could have agreed with the jury.” Then, a federal habeas court can grant relief on a sufficiency of the evidence challenge “only if the state court decision was objectively unreasonable.”
Johnson was convicted for first-degree murder for a shooting death that occurred in an alleyway outside a bar. Johnson was prosecuted as an accomplice and co-conspirator; Corey Walker, a friend of Johnson’s, was prosecuted as the shooter. Johnson filed post-trial motions and a state post-conviction petition arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction; the state courts denied relief.
The Third Circuit granted relief on the Jackson claim, reasoning that no rational factfinder could accept the “mere speculation” that “Johnson shared Walker’s intent to kill Williams.”
The Supreme Court holds that the Third Circuit “unduly impinged on the jury’s role as factfinder,” because “Jackson requires only that jurors ‘draw reasonable inferences.’” “[T]he only question under Jackson is whether [the jury’s] finding was so insupportable as to fall below the threshold of bare rationality. The state court of last review did not think so, and that determination in turn is entitled to considerable deference under AEDPA.”
Maria Pulzetti, EDPA, Capital Habeas Unit