A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

By Burt Rose

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On May 29, 2012, the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES issued a Per Curiam Opinion in the matter of BRIAN COLEMAN, SUPERINTENDENT, STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT FAYETTE, ET AL v. LORENZO JOHNSON, Respondent, No. 11–1053, 2012 WL 1912196. This case was on PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT, see Johnson v. Mechling, 446 Fed. Appx. 531, 2011 WL 4565464  (CA3 2011).

Johnson was convicted as an ac complice and co-conspirator in the murder of Taraja Wil liams, who was killed by a shotgun blast to the chest in 1995 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After his conviction was affirmed in state court, Johnson sought a writ of habeas corpus in District Court pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2254. Judge Jones of the District Court denied habeas relief but the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support Johnson’s conviction under the standard set forth in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307 (1979). Judge Nygaard, in a 2-1 panel decision joined by Chief Judge McKee, held that Johnson was entitled to federal habeas relief because evidence that he walked with the actual shooter and the victim into an alley after the shooter and that the victim had engaged in a bar fight was insufficient to establish that he had specific intent to kill the victim. As for the notion that Johnson shared the shooter’s intent to kill the victim, the court concluded that was “mere speculation” that no rational factfinder could accept as true. Absent some specific testi mony that “Johnson actively pushed, shoved, ordered or otherwise forced the victim into the alley, or prevented him from leaving it,” the court could see no reasonable basis for the jury’s conclusion that Johnson had a specific intent to help kill Williams. Judge Chagares dissented.

The High Court noted that 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. On habeas review, a federal court may not overturn a state court decision rejecting a sufficiency of the evidence challenge simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court. The federal court instead may do so only if the state court decision was objectively unreasonable. Because the Court of Appeals failed to afford due respect to the role of the jury and the state courts of Pennsylvania, the Court reversed the judgment in this case by the Third Circuit.

The record showed that Johnson and Walker (the shooter) kept Williams between them in a single-file line on the way to the alley, where Johnson stood at the entrance while the other two entered, suggesting that Johnson may have been prepared to prevent Williams from fleeing. The jury could also have concluded that Johnson helped lead or lure him there to facilitate the murder. Taken in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the trial testimony revealed that Johnson and Walker “ran the streets together,” and had attempted to collect a debt from Williams earlier on the day of the murder. Williams resisted the collection, managing to humiliate Walker in the process by giving him a public thrashing with a broomstick. This enraged Walker to the point that he repeatedly declared over the course of the day in Johnson’s presence that he intended to kill Williams. Then, while Walker was noticeably concealing a bulky object under his trenchcoat, Johnson helped escort Williams into an alley, where Johnson stood at the entryway while Walker pulled out a shotgun and shot Williams in the chest. On the basis of these facts, a rational jury could infer that Johnson knew that Walker was armed with a shot gun, knew that he intended to kill Williams and helped usher Williams into the alleyway to meet his fate. The jury in this case was so convinced, and the only question here was whether that finding was so insupporta ble as to fall below the threshold of bare rationality. The state court of last review did not think so, and that deter mination in turn is entitled to considerable deference.

Because the evidence was sufficient to convict Johnson as an accomplice and a co-conspirator in this murder, the Commonwealth’s petition for certiorari was granted and the judgment of the Court of Ap peals for the Third Circuit was reversed. There was no dissent.

Johnson was represented by Michael Wiseman, Esquire.

COMMENT: May I suggest that “the threshold of bare rationality” does not seem like a real difficult standard to warrant denial of federal habeas relief?

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Comments on: "SCOTUS reverses grant of habeas" (1)

  1. Burt:

    Shame on you for conveniently omitting from your report the following additional critical facts of record established at Johnson’s trial: (1) one eyewitness testified that Johnson and Walker “forced” the victim into the alley; (2) another eyewitness testified that Johnson and Walker “walked” the victim into the alley; (3) after the murder, Johnson fled the scene and did not contact the police as an innocent man surely would have; (4) on the day following the murder, when a police detective attempted to approach Johnson to discuss the murder, Johnson fled in a vehicle and then by foot, refusing to talk to the detective; and (6) Johnson attempted, via the assistance of a third party, to create a false alibi to protect himself from criminal prosecution.

    You also omitted from your report the fact that the two Third Circuit judges who wrote for the majority made patently subjective weight of the evidence and witness credibility determinations, substituting their view of the evidence for that of the jury. This is a blatant violation of well-established appellate law governing sufficiency of the evidence reviews. The two judge majority of the Third Circuit also relied upon a shockingly novel theory for distinguishing between reasonable factual inferences arising from the direct evidence at trial and mere speculation that has never been adopted by the United States Supreme Court and therefore could never legitimately form the basis for habeas corpus relief. The bottom line is that the Third Circuit in this case arrogantly ignored binding Supreme Court precedent governing sufficiency of the evidence reviews under Jackson v. Virginia and governing the proper deference federal habeas courts are to show state courts that have addressed alleged violations of the federal Constitution.

    Coleman v. Johnson is a wonderful victory for the American people because it is a victory for the rule of law. Despite its overwhelming workload, the Supreme Court’s willingness to take the time and energy to call the Third Circuit to the carpet for ignoring the High Court’s clearly-defined binding jurisprudence — something the majority panel obviously thought would never happen — is encouraging to legal practitioners who care about the integrity of the legal profession. The decision is also a victory for the principle of federalism; it reiterates that federal courts may not run roughshod over state courts in the enforcement of constitutional rights in criminal cases.

    In closing, it is worth remembering that the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case was 9-0 in favor of reversal of the Third Circuit and reinstatement of the murder conviction and life sentence. The unanimity of the Court’s decision speaks volumes.

    By the way, who served as counsel for the Commonwealth in this case?

    Sincerely,

    Will Stoycos

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