Leftwich v. Maloney

Decision Date02 July 2008
Docket NumberNo. 06-2583.,06-2583.
Citation532 F.3d 20
PartiesRonald LEFTWICH, Petitioner, Appellant, v. Michael T. MALONEY, Respondent, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

David A.F. Lewis, for appellant.

Jessica V. Barnett, Assistant Attorney General, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with whom Martha Coakley, Attorney General, was on brief, for appellee.

Before BOUDIN, Circuit Judge, O'CONNOR,* Associate Justice (Ret.), and SELYA, Senior Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Senior Circuit Judge.

In this appeal, a habeas petitioner challenges his state-court conviction and ongoing detention for the murder of a prelate. The appeal poses only a single question: Was the evidence sufficient, in terms of the Due Process Clause, to ground a conviction for first-degree murder either as a principal or as a joint venturer? The district court answered this question in the affirmative, and so do we.

Because this appeal involves a challenge to evidentiary sufficiency, we rehearse the facts in the light most compatible with the jury's verdict, consistent with record support. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). Moreover, in a wrinkle peculiar to the exercise of habeas jurisdiction, we grant a presumption of correctness to factual determinations made by the state courts. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

The saga begins at the same place it ends — a prison. While incarcerated at the Hampden County House of Corrections, petitioner-appellant Ronald Leftwich met Bishop Martin Henri. The bishop, whose charismatic ministry extended to the inmates there, arranged for the petitioner to join his flock when released from prison. As part of that arrangement, the petitioner took up residence on the grounds of the Brothers of Bethany Holy Trinity Church in Brimfield, Massachusetts.

Initially, the petitioner performed landscape maintenance in exchange for bed and board. He soon assumed additional duties and, with the bishop's assistance, obtained an additional job with an independent employer (Strawberry Productions).

Apart from his killer or killers, the last person to see Bishop Henri alive was a parishioner who, on the evening of December 2, 1996, observed him walking toward his residence on the church grounds. The next morning, the bishop could not be located. The bishop's nearsightedness was well-known and, after his broken glasses were found, parishioners called the police. In short order, state troopers discovered an area of blood-soaked soil and repastinated turf close to the bishop's residence.

The search widened. Later the same morning, the troopers discovered the bishop's lifeless body in a ditch some three miles away. The corpse showed signs of both blunt trauma to the head and stab wounds to the chest. A medical examiner would later testify that Bishop Henri had died sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m., and that the stab wounds (which had punctured his left lung) had been inflicted roughly an hour after the blunt trauma wounds and while the bishop was still alive.

The petitioner gave a statement to the police in which he asserted that he had last seen the bishop at 5:45 p.m. on December 2; that he (the petitioner) had retired around 11 p.m.; that he had awakened at 6:15 a.m.; and that he had begun the day by doing a load of laundry. When traces of blood were discovered on the exterior of the petitioner's van, the police asked for the keys. At that point the petitioner became evasive and gave the officers several false leads (e.g., suggesting that the keys might be in the kitchen or on the ironing board). When the police expressed frustration, the petitioner gnomically responded: "You'll probably find your killer if you find those keys."

The petitioner's arrest and the giving of Miranda warnings, see Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), followed. When the petitioner emptied his pockets during booking, the missing keys appeared. He immediately protested his innocence with respect to the murder while at the same time inculpating himself in the disposal of the body: "I did not kill the bishop. I only helped dump his body, get rid of his body."

A Hampden County grand jury indicted the petitioner for first-degree murder. At trial, the prosecution's case was largely circumstantial. The petitioner's statements were entered into evidence, but he did not testify.

The petitioner moved for a directed verdict at the close of the prosecution's case in chief and again at the close of all the evidence. The trial justice denied both motions. She instructed the jurors that they could find the petitioner guilty on either of two theories: as a principal or, alternatively, as a joint venturer.1 The jury returned a general verdict declaring the petitioner guilty of first-degree murder. The jurors made no special finding as to which theory of guilt guided their thought processes. The trial justice imposed a sentence of life imprisonment.

On direct appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affirmed. See Commonwealth v. Leftwich, 430 Mass. 865, 724 N.E.2d 691 (Mass.2000). In its opinion, the SJC rejected a multitude of contentions, including a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. The court concluded by stating that its review of the entire record pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 278, § 33E, revealed no reason to disturb the verdict. See Leftwich, 724 N.E.2d at 699.

Eleven months later, the petitioner seasonably repaired to the federal district court in search of a writ of habeas corpus. He named as the respondent the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Correction (for ease in exposition, we shall treat the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the real party in interest). The petitioner advanced seven claims of error. The district court rejected them all. See Leftwich v. Maloney, No. 01-10284, 2006 WL 2883346, at *8 (D.Mass. Oct.5, 2006).

Only the disposition of the petitioner's sufficiency challenge is pertinent here. The district court concluded that the SJC had not addressed the sufficiency of the evidence under the relevant federal standard and, therefore, reviewed that claim de novo. See id. at *6. The court nevertheless reached the same conclusion as had the SJC and, in doing so, employed much the same reasoning. In due course, the district court granted a certificate of appealability limited to this claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c); Fed. R.App. P. 22(b)(1).

The district court's denial of the insufficiency claim turns on a purely legal determination and, thus, engenders de novo review. Pike v. Guarino, 492 F.3d 61, 68 (1st Cir.2007). We have construed its certificate to encompass the broad question of whether the evidence presented at trial was constitutionally sufficient to convict the petitioner either as a principal or as a joint venturer. It is to this question that we now proceed.

In criminal cases, the constitutional benchmark for evidentiary sufficiency is familiar. "If the evidence presented, taken in the light most flattering to the prosecution, together with all reasonable inferences favorable to it, permits a rational jury to find each essential element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt, then the evidence is legally sufficient." United States v. Olbres, 61 F.3d 967, 970 (1st Cir.1995) (citing Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781). In conducting a sufficiency analysis, however, some degree of intellectual rigor is required; a reviewing court should not give credence to "evidentiary interpretations and illations that are unreasonable, insupportable, or overly speculative." United States v. Spinney, 65 F.3d 231, 234 (1st Cir.1995).

Once a state court has passed upon the merits of a sufficiency challenge in accordance with the appropriate federal constitutional standard, a federal habeas court's review becomes incrementally more nuanced. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), Pub.L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214, the state court's application "of clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States," will trigger issuance of the writ only if it constitutes "an unreasonable application" of that law. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Thus, "[t]he habeas question of whether the state court decision is objectively unreasonable is layered on top of the underlying standard governing the constitutional right asserted." Hurtado v. Tucker, 245 F.3d 7, 16 (1st Cir.2001). In such a situation, then, the state court's decision is not vulnerable unless it evinces some increment of incorrectness beyond mere error. McCambridge v. Hall, 303 F.3d 24, 36 (1st Cir.2002) (en banc).

Here, however, there is a threshold question about whether the state court in fact passed upon the merits of the federal constitutional claim; the SJC addressed the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the conviction exclusively in the vocabulary of state law and precedent. That leads to a further refinement. We have held that a state-court adjudication of an issue framed in terms of state law may receive section 2254(d)(1) deference so long as the state standard is at least as protective of the defendant's rights as its federal counterpart. Thus,

[i]f there is a federal or state case that explicitly says that the state adheres to a standard that is more favorable to defendants than the federal standard (and it is correct in its characterization of the law), we will presume the federal law adjudication to be subsumed within the state law adjudication.

Id. at 35; see White v. Coplan, 399 F.3d 18, 23 (1st Cir.2005) (explaining that a federal habeas court may "infer that the federal claim was considered if the state court rejects a counterpart state claim and then cites to a case holding that the federal constitution provides no greater protection").

In addressing the sufficiency of the evidence undergirding the joint venture theory, the SJC relied on a...

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