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Habeas – Sufficiency of Evidence Review

Cavazos v. Shirley Ree Smith, USSC No. 10-1115, 10/31/11 (per curiam); prior history: Smith v. Mitchell, 437 F.3d 884 (9th Cir. 2006), vacated and remanded in light of Carey v. Musladin, 549 U. S. 70 (2006) by Patrick v. Smith, 550 U. S. 915, reinstated on remand, 508 F. 3d 1256 (2007); vacated and remanded in light of McDaniel v. Brown, 558 U. S. ___ (2010) by Patrick v. Smith, 558 U. S. ___ (2010), reinstated on remand sub nom. Smith v. Mitchell, 624 F. 3d 1235 (2010)

State court conviction for assault of 7-week-old child resulting in death upheld, reversing court of appeals’ habeas-review conclusion of insufficient proof of cause of death. Prosecution experts ascribed death to shaken baby syndrome, defense experts either to old trauma or sudden infant death syndrome. Resolution of the experts’ disagreements was, the Court holds, for the jury and not the habeas court:

The opinion of the Court in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307 (1979), makes clear that 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. What is more, 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.” Renico v. Lett, 559 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 5) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Because rational people can sometimes disagree, the inevitable consequence of this settled law is that judges will sometimes encounter convictions that they believe to be mistaken, but that they must nonetheless uphold. The Court of Appeals in this case substituted its judgment for that of a California jury on the question whether the prosecution’s or the defense’s expert witnesses more persuasively explained the cause of a death. For this reason, certiorari is granted and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

In light of the evidence presented at trial, the Ninth Circuit plainly erred in concluding that the jury’s verdict was irrational, let alone that it was unreasonable for the California Court of Appeal to think otherwise. See §2254(d). Doubts about whether Smith is in fact guilty are understandable. But it is not the job of this Court, and was not that of the Ninth Circuit, to decide whether the State’s theory was correct. The jury decided that question, and its decision is supported by the record.*

Category tag: Ninth Circuit Beat Down. The conclusion reached by the 9th in its original decision was, the majority now says, “plainly wrong.” A subsequent reversal apparently didn’t convey the intended message, so the Court ratchets up the rhetoric: “The Ninth Circuit’s assertion that these experts ‘reached [their] conclusion because there was no evidence in the brain itself of the cause of death’ is simply false.” More: stressing the two prior reversals, the majority accuses the 9th of “persist(ing) its course … without seriously confronting the significance of the cases called to its attention. … Its refusal to do so necessitates this Court’s action today.” The 3 dissenters, for their part, accuse the majority of improperly assuming an error-correcting rather than law-clarifying function. A recurrent theme, not unfamiliar to the Wisconsin practitioner.

The dissent also compiles a useful list of recent authorities, medical and legal, challenging the assumptions employed in this 1997 trial. One such cite will be familiar: “Doubt has increased in the medical community ‘over whether infants can be fatally injured through shaking alone.’ State v. Edmunds, 2008 WI App 33, ¶15, 308 Wis. 2d 374, 385, 746 N. W. 2d 590, 596.” (Edmunds granted relief on a theory of newly discovered, rather than insufficient, evidence; the theory of the litigation very much matters.) Also see this op-ed by legal scholar Deborah Tuerkheimer: “Anatomy of a Misdiagnosis,” NYT, 9/20/10 (“Troublingly, though, Ms. Edmunds’s case has been a rare exception. Most shaken baby convictions have yet to be revisited. New cases are still being prosecuted based on the outdated science.”). Ms. Tuerkheimer pursues that thought in much more detail in a recent Alabama Law Review article, “Science-Dependent Prosecution and the Problem of Epistemic Contingency: A Study of Shaken Baby Syndrome” (“Because it is fully constructed by and dependent on medical expertise, Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) raises in stark form the problems that arise when science outpaces law—most troublingly, the prospect that we are imprisoning people who have committed no crime.”) More, as well, in this NYT Magazine piece. Another category tag, then: Not the Last Word.

Update: Not the last word, indeed – Smith subsequently received a commutation of sentence; not, to be sure, a pardon based on innocence, but it does come close (“it is clear that significant doubts surround Ms. Smith’s conviction”).

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