Harris v. Rivera

Decision Date14 December 1981
Docket NumberNo. 81-17,81-17
PartiesDavid R. HARRIS, Superintendent, Green Haven Correctional Facility v. Jose RIVERA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

PER CURIAM.

The questions presented by the certiorari petition concern the constitutionality of inconsistent verdicts in a nonjury criminal trial. Certiorari is granted and the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed.

During the morning of March 26, 1973, respondent, Jose Rivera, his wife Cynthia Humdy, and their friend, Earl Robinson, entered the apartment of Milagros Torres. After a neighbor heard a woman scream, he called the police. The police arrested Humdy on the fire escape with $540 in cash in her coat pocket, and when the apartment door was opened, they found the place in shambles and arrested respondent and Robinson.

Each of the three intruders was indicted on five separate charges arising out of this one episode.1 They were tried jointly by a justice of the Supreme Court of New York sitting without a jury. The principal government witness was the victim Torres; Robinson was the only defense witness. If the judge had credited all of the testimony of Torres, presumably he would have found all three defendants guilty on all counts; acquittals presumably would have been rendered if the judge had credited all of Robinson's testimony. However, he found all defendants not guilty on three counts, acquitted Robinson on all counts, and convicted respondent and his wife of robbery in the second degree, grand larceny in the third degree, and burglary in the third degree.2 Respondent's convictions were affirmed on appeal. People v. Rivera, 57 A.D.2d 738, 393 N.Y.S.2d 630, leave to appeal denied, 42 N.Y.2d 894, 397 N.Y.S.2d 1035, 366 N.E.2d 887 (1977).

In 1978, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York denied respondent's application for a federal writ of habeas corpus. After reviewing the trial record, the District Court rejected several challenges to the conviction which he described as "variations on the claim of insufficiency of the evidence." 3

On appeal from that judgment, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concluded that there was an apparent inconsistency in the state trial judge's general verdicts acquitting Robinson and convicting respondent. 643 F.2d 86. The Court of Appeals held that the New York trial judge had committed constitutional error because he had not explained that apparent inconsistency on the record.4 The court therefore entered an order requiring the state trial court either to grant respondent a new trial or to demonstrate by appropriate findings that there is a rational basis for the facially inconsistent verdicts.5 Under the Court of Appeals' holding, the adequacy of that explanation would thereafter be subject to review by the federal courts, which, if they were persuaded that the verdicts were irrationally inconsistent, would then decide whether respondent's conviction is constitutionally permissible.6 The Court of Appeals recognized that its constitutional holding was unprecedented.7

This case does not raise any question concerning the significance that an appellate court may attach to an apparent inconsistency in a verdict that is subject to review on direct appeal. This federal proceeding constituted a collateral attack on the final judgment of a state court that already had been affirmed on direct appeal. In such a proceeding a federal court is authorized to issue "a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).8

In view of the limited scope of review of a state judgment authorized in a federal habeas corpus proceeding, it is plain that the Court of Appeals erred in this case. On the assumption that the Court of Appeals correctly determined that the verdicts are facially inconsistent, we hold that there is no federal requirement that a state trial judge explain his reasons for acquitting a defendant in a state criminal trial; even if the acquittal rests on an improper ground, that error would not create a constitutional defect in a guilty verdict that is supported by sufficient evidence and is the product of a fair trial.

I

The work of appellate judges is facilitated when trial judges make findings of fact that explain the basis for controversial rulings.9 Although there are occasions when an explanation of the reasons for a decision may be required by the demands of due process,10 such occasions are the exception rather than the rule.11 Federal judges have no general supervisory power over state trial judges; they may not require the observance of any special procedures except when neces- sary to assure compliance with the dictates of the Federal Constitution. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals erred when it directed the state trial judge to provide an explanation of the apparent inconsistency in his acquittal of Robinson and his conviction of respondent without first determining whether an inexplicably inconsistent verdict would be unconstitutional.12

II

Inconsistency in a verdict is not a sufficient reason for setting it aside. We have so held with respect to inconsistency between verdicts on separate charges against one defendant, Dunn v. United States, 284 U.S. 390, 52 S.Ct. 189, 76 L.Ed. 356 (1932),13 and also with respect to verdicts that treat codefendants in a joint trial inconsistently, United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 279, 64 S.Ct. 134, 135, 88 L.Ed. 48 (1943).14 Those cases, however, involved jury trials; as the Court of Appeals correctly recognized, both of those opin- ions stressed the unreviewable power of a jury to return a verdict of not guilty for impermissible reasons.15 It is argued that a different rule should be applied to cases in which a judge is the factfinder.

Although Dunn and Dotterweich preclude a holding that inconsistency in a verdict is intolerable in itself, inconsistency nevertheless might constitute evidence of arbitrariness that would undermine confidence in the quality of the judge's conclusion. In this case, the Court of Appeals suggested the possibility that the trial judge might have relied on impermissible considerations such as the fact that neither respondent nor his wife testified, or knowledge of adverse information not contained in the record.16 Undeniably, these possibilities exist, but they also would have existed if Robinson had been convicted or if he had been tried separately. In bench trials, judges routinely hear inadmissible evidence that they are presumed to ignore when making decisions. It is equally routine for them to instruct juries that no adverse inference may be drawn from a defendant's failure to testify; surely we must presume that they follow their own instructions when they are acting as factfinders. We are not persuaded that an apparent inconsistency in a trial judge's verdict gives rise to an inference of irregularity in his finding of guilt that is sufficiently strong to overcome the well-established presumption that the judge adhered to basic rules of procedure.17

Other explanations for an apparent inconsistency are far more likely. Most apparent is the likelihood that the judge's actual observation of everything that transpired in the courtroom created some doubt about the guilt of one defendant that he might or might not be able to articulate in a convincing manner.18 In this case, if the judge was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that respondent and his wife were both guilty, it would be most unfortunate if a concern about the plausibility of a lingering doubt about Robinson should cause him to decide to convict all three rather than to try to articulate the basis for his doubt.

It is also possible that the judge may have made an error of law and erroneously assumed, for example, that Robinson should not be found guilty without evidence that he was to share in the proceeds of the larceny. There is no reason—and surely no constitutional requirement—that such an error pertaining to the case against Robinson should redound to the benefit of respondent.19

Even the unlikely possibility that the acquittal is the product of a lenity that judges are free to exercise at the time of sentencing but generally are forbidden to exercise when ruling on guilt or innocence, would not create a constitutional violation. We are aware of nothing in the Federal Constitution that would prevent a State from empowering its judges to render verdicts of acquittal whenever they are convinced that no sentence should be imposed for reasons that are unrelated to guilt or innocence. The Constitution does not prohibit state judges from being excessively lenient.

The question that respondent has standing to raise is whether his trial was fairly conducted. The trial judge, the New York appellate courts, the Federal District Court, and the United States Court of Appeals all agreed that the record contains adequate evidence of his guilt.20 These courts also agreed that the proceedings leading up to respondent's conviction were conducted fairly. Apart from the acquittal of Robinson, this record discloses no constitutional error. Even assuming that this acquittal was logically inconsistent with the conviction of respondent, respondent, who was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt after a fair trial, has no constitutional ground to complain that Robinson was acquitted.21

Reversed.

Justice MARSHALL, dissenting.

I write separately to underscore my disapproval of what I perceive to be a growing and inexplicable readiness on the part of this Court to "dispose of" cases summarily. Perhaps this trend is due to what is often lamented as our "increasing caseload." Whatever the reason for this trend, I believe that it can only detract from this Court's decisions in deserving cases by...

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