Jackson v. Virginia, No. 78-5283

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSTEWART
Citation61 L.Ed.2d 560,443 U.S. 307,99 S.Ct. 2781
PartiesJames A. JACKSON, Petitioner, v. Commonwealth of VIRGINIA et al
Decision Date28 June 1979
Docket NumberNo. 78-5283

443 U.S. 307
99 S.Ct. 2781
61 L.Ed.2d 560
James A. JACKSON, Petitioner,

v.

Commonwealth of VIRGINIA et al.

No. 78-5283.
Argued March 21, 1979.
Decided June 28, 1979.
Rehearing Denied Oct. 1, 1979.

See 444 U.S. 890, 100 S.Ct. 195.

Syllabus

Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder after a bench trial in a Virginia court, and his motion and petition in the state courts to set aside the conviction on the ground that there was insufficient evidence of premeditation, a necessary element of first-degree murder, were denied. He then brought a habeas corpus proceeding in Federal District Court, which, applying the "no evidence" criterion of Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U.S. 199, 80 S.Ct. 624, 4 L.Ed.2d 654, found the record devoid of evidence of premeditation and granted the writ. Applying the same criterion, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that there was some evidence that petitioner had intended to kill the victim.

Held:

1. A federal habeas corpus court must consider not whether there was any evidence to support a state-court conviction, but whether there was sufficient evidence to justify a rational trier of fact to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368. Pp. 313-324.

(a) In re Winship presupposes as an essential of the due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment that no person shall be made to suffer the onus of a criminal conviction except upon sufficient proof—defined as evidence necessary to convince a trier of fact beyond a reasonable doubt of the existence of every element of the offense. Pp. 316-320.

(b) After In re Winship, the critical inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction must be not simply to determine whether the jury was properly instructed on reasonable doubt, but to determine whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The relevant question is whether after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The Thompson "no evidence" rule is simply inadequate to protect against misapplications of the constitutional standard of reasonable doubt. Pp. 313-324.

(c) In a challenge to a state conviction brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, which requires a federal court to entertain a state prisoner's claim that he is being held in "custody in violation of the Constitution

Page 308

or laws or treaties of the United States," the applicant is entitled to habeas corpus relief if it is found that upon the evidence adduced at the trial no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Pp. 320-324.

2. A review of the record in this case in the light most favorable to the prosecution shows that a rational factfinder could have found petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of first-degree murder under Virginia law. Pp. 324-326.

4th Cir., 580 F.2d 1048, affirmed.

Carolyn J. Colville, Richmond, Va., for petitioner, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Marshall Coleman, Richmond, Va., for respondents.

Page 309

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Constitution prohibits the criminal conviction of any person except upon proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368. The question in this case is what standard is to be applied in a federal habeas corpus proceeding when the claim is made that a person has been convicted in a state court upon insufficient evidence.

I

The petitioner was convicted after a bench trial in the Circuit Court of chesterfield County, Va., of the first-degree murder of a woman named Mary Houston Cole.1 Under Virginia law, murder is defined as "the unlawful killing of another with malice aforethought." Stapleton v. Commonwealth, 123 Va. 825, 96 S.E. 801. Premeditation, or specific intent to kill, distinguishes murder in the first from murder in the second degree; proof of this element is essential to conviction of the former offense, and the burden of proving it clearly rests with the prosecution. Shiflett v. Commonwealth, 143 Va. 609, 130 S.E. 777; Jefferson v. Commonwealth, 214 Va. 432, 201 S.E.2d 749.

That the petitioner had shot and killed Mrs. Cole was not in dispute at the trial. The State's evidence established that

Page 310

she had been a member of the staff at the local county jail, that she had befriended him while he was imprisoned there on a disorderly conduct charge, and that when he was released she had arranged for him to live in the home of her son and daughter-in-law. Testimony by her relatives indicated that on the day of the killing the petitioner had been drinking and had spent a great deal of time shooting at targets with his revolver. Late in the afternoon, according to their testimony, he had unsuccessfully attempted to talk the victim into driving him to North Carolina. She did drive the petitioner to a local diner. There the two were observed by several police officers, who testified that both the petitioner and the victim had been drinking. The two were observed by a deputy sheriff as they were preparing to leave the diner in her car. The petitioner was then in possession of his revolver, and the sheriff also observed a kitchen knife in the automobile. The sheriff testified that he had offered to keep the revolver until the petitioner sobered up, but that the latter had indicated that this would be unnecessary since he and the victim were about to engage in sexual activity.

Her body was found in a secluded church parking lot a day and a half later, naked from the waist down, her slacks beneath her body. Uncontradicted medical and expert evidence established that she had been shot twice at close range with the petitioner's gun. She appeared not to have been sexually molested. Six cartridge cases identified as having been fired from the petitioner's gun were found near the body.

After shooting Mrs. Cole, the petitioner drove her car to North Carolina, where, after a short trip to Florida, he was arrested several days later. In a postarrest statement, introduced in evidence by the prosecution, the petitioner admitted that he had shot the victim. He contended, however, that the shooting had been accidental. When asked to describe his condition at the time of the shooting, he indicated that he had not been drunk, but had been "pretty high." His

Page 311

story was that the victim had attacked him with a knife when he resisted her sexual advances. He said that he had defended himself by firing a number of warning shots into the ground, and had then reloaded his revolver. The victim, he said, then attempted to take the gun from him, and the gun "went off" in the ensuing struggle. He said that he fled without seeking help for the victim because he was afraid. At the trial, his position was that he had acted in self-defense. Alternatively, he claimed that in any event the State's own evidence showed that he had been too intoxicated to form the specific intent necessary under Virginia law to sustain a conviction of murder in the first degree.2

The trial judge, declaring himself convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the petitioner had committed first-degree murder, found him guilty of that offense.3 The petitioner's motion to set aside the judgment as contrary to the evidence was denied, and he was sentenced to serve a term of 30 years in the Virginia state penitentiary. A petition for writ of error to the Virginia Supreme Court on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction was denied.4

Page 312

The petitioner then commenced this habeas corpus proceeding in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, raising the same basic claim.5 Applying the "no evidence" criterion of Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U.S. 199, 80 S.Ct. 624, 4 L.Ed.2d 654, the District Court found the record devoid of evidence of premeditation and granted the writ. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment.6 The court noted that a dissent from the denial of certiorari in a case in this Court had exposed the question whether the constitutional rule of In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368, might compel a new criterion by which the validity of a state criminal conviction must be tested in a federal habeas corpus proceeding. See Freeman v. Zahradnick, 429 U.S. 1111, 97 S.Ct. 1150, 51 L.Ed.2d 566 (dissent from denial of certiorari). But the appellate court held that in the absence of further guidance from this Court it would apply the same "no evidence" criterion of Thompson v. Louisville that the District Court had adopted. The court was of the view that some evidence that the petitioner had intended to kill the victim could be found in the facts that the petitioner had reloaded his gun after firing warning shots, that he had had time to do so, and that the victim was then shot not once but twice. The court also concluded that the state trial judge could have found that the petitioner was not so intoxicated as to be incapable of premeditation.

We granted certiorari to consider the petitioner's claim that under In re Winship, supra, a federal habeas corpus court must

Page 313

consider not whether there was any evidence to support a state-court conviction, but whether there was sufficient evidence to justify a rational trier of the facts to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 439 U.S. 1001, 99 S.Ct. 609, 58 L.Ed.2d 676.

II

Our inquiry in this case is narrow. The petitioner has not seriously questioned any aspect of Virginia law governing the allocation of the burden of production or persuasion in a murder trial. See Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 44 L.Ed.2d 508; Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 97 S.Ct. 2319, 53...

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    ...it is distinguishable from other instructional errors that prevent a jury from considering an issue. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 320, n. 14, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2790, n. 14, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979) ("failure to instruct a jury on the necessity of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt......
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  • Connecticut v. Johnson, No. 81-927
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