This may not seem like news to most people, but to lawyers who do criminal appeals, it is an oddity. In Coleman v. Johnson, decided today, the United States Supreme Court decided, per curiam, without argument, to reverse a Third Circuit case in which the Third Circuit had granted habeas corpus relief to Lorenzo Johnson.
In a sense, the case itself is unremarkable. Lorenzo Johnson had been convicted of murder as an accomplice in the death of Taraja Williams. The evidence at trial was that Corey Walker, a friend of Johnson’s, had been beaten by Williams, and was angry. Walker and Johnson came back to Williams at a bar, Walker got into an argument with him, and then Walker and Johnson left with Williams to go into the back alley. There Williams was shot and killed by a shotgun blast to the chest. Johnson was convicted as an accomplice, just as guilty as Walker of Williams’ murder. The conviction was upheld on state appeal, and went to federal habeas corpus. The Third Circuit — the Court of Appeals that covers Pennsylvania — reversed the conviction, saying that there was not enough evidence that Johnson shared Walker’s intent to kill. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that they agree to hear the case so that they might reverse. Today the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Petition and reversed the conviction without even having full briefs on the issue… without argument … and with a per curiam (meaning “for the Court”) opinion. The case has now been sent back to the lower courts, presumably to have the appeals dismissed.
The decision was very narrowly fact-specific, but it reaffirms the principle that if the federal court is asked to overturn a conviction for insufficiency of the evidence, it must do so not just because it disagrees with the decision, but because the Court believes that no reasonable juror could have come to that conclusion. There was certainly some evidence to support the conviction — Walker and Johnson escorted Williams to the back alley, Walker obviously was carrying a weapon, etc. So it may well have been that the Third Circuit came to a decision that the members of the Supreme Court would not have come to.
But the Supreme Court exists for two purposes — to set precedent, and to correct errors in the lower courts. Of those two functions, the precedent-setting function is by far the most important. The Court only grants review of about 80 cases a year; it stands to reason that the 80 that they grant should be important issues applicable to lots of cases that lower courts disagree on. At least in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the general view had been developed that the Court’s precious resources and time should not be spent correcting errors that affect only the rights of the parties there, and that if they WERE to take a case to correct an error, it was almost always going to be an error that had resulted in someone’s wrongful imprisonment. In those days, it just DID NOT HAPPEN that the Court would grant a government’s petition for writ of certiorari and reverse to correct an error that had been made by the courts in favor of an individual. And they certainly would not have granted the government’s petition and reversed WITHOUT BRIEFING AND ARGUMENT. Remember — the Petition for Writ of Certiorari is not the same as a brief on the merits, and the usual course is that if the Court thinks that the Petition for Writ of Certiorari is a good one, the usual practice is to grant the Petition, set the case for full briefing, and schedule oral argument. The decision to handle this case in this way is highly unusual, and it is particularly unusual in a case in which the decision runs AGAINST the rights of the individual.
So what can we conclude from this decision?
- The Court thought that it was crystal clear that the evidence was sufficient to support Lorenzo Johnson’s conviction, and that he shouldn’t be set free.
- The Court thought that it was important to restate what it has long said — that the job of the federal court, in reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a state court conviction, is to uphold that conviction unless the evidence is so inadequate that no reasonable jury could have convicted.
- That by reversing in summary fashion a case that in former times would not even have been heard, the Court has shown just how very far to the right it has moved, even since the days of Warren Burger as Chief Justice.
It’s a minor case with no real precedential value, but to those who follow the Court, it’s message is unmistakeable.