Court reaffirms jury decides the facts

May 29, 2012 at 10:51 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 29 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling on a Pennsylvania murder case Tuesday, reinforced the supremacy of a jury over an appeals court as a decider of fact.

Lorenzo Johnson was convicted as an accomplice and co-conspirator in the murder of Taraja Williams, who was killed by a shotgun blast to the chest in the early morning hours of Dec. 15, 1995, in Harrisburg, Pa.

Another man, enraged by an earlier confrontation, did the actual shooting, but Johnson accompanied him.

After his state appeals were exhausted, Johnson sought constitutional review in federal court. A federal judge rejected his case, but a federal appeals court ruled the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support Johnson's conviction under the standard set in a 1979 Supreme Court precedent, Jackson vs. Virginia.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, in an unsigned "per curiam" opinion, unanimously reversed the appeals court.

"We have made clear that Jackson claims face a high bar in federal [constitutional review] proceedings because they are subject to two layers of judicial deference," the opinion said.

"First, on direct appeal, 'it is the responsibility of the jury -- not the court -- to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial. 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,'" the opinion said citing the high court's 2011 ruling in Cavazos vs. Smith.

"And second, on [constitutional] 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."

The ruling reversed the appeals court and sent the case back down for a new appeals decision based on Tuesday's decision.

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