Taylor v. Stainer

Decision Date04 May 1994
Docket NumberNo. 93-55104,93-55104
Citation31 F.3d 907
PartiesMichael Davis TAYLOR, Petitioner-Appellee, v. J.S. STAINER, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Richard L. Walker, Deputy Atty. Gen., Los Angeles, CA, for respondent-appellant.

Michael Davis Taylor, pro se petitioner-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Before: KOZINSKI and TROTT, Circuit Judges, and WILLIAMS, ** District Judge.

TROTT, Circuit Judge:

The Attorney General of California appeals the district court's grant of habeas corpus to Michael Taylor. Taylor was convicted of first-degree murder based solely on a fingerprint of his that police found on the victim's windowsill and the inferences drawn from that print. The district court concluded that this fingerprint was not sufficient evidence to support the conviction and granted Taylor's petition. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2253, and we reverse.


In December 1978, police found Mildred Jackson's body on the bedroom floor of her apartment. The medical examiner determined she died from head wounds sustained from a beating with a blunt or flat object. The police believed the killer had entered the apartment through an open kitchen window that was determined to be the "point of entry" in connection with the crime. The window's latch was broken and the screen was bent. All other windows were closed and the doors were locked. Ms. Jackson's television set was missing, and her bedroom had been ransacked.

The police collected a fingerprint from the bottom interior edge of the open window's windowsill and another from a cup in the bedroom. A fingerprint expert concluded the print under the windowsill could have been left by a person reaching over the sill from outside the window or by a person reaching under the sill from inside the apartment. Ten years after the murder, in 1988, the Los Angeles Police Department began using a new computer system for identifying fingerprints, and the police matched the print from the windowsill with Taylor's prints. The print from the cup did not match either Taylor or Ms. Jackson. No evidence, other than the fingerprint, connected Taylor to the crime.

Taylor was charged with felony murder based on a burglary homicide, and the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. After exhausting his remedies in California state court, he petitioned for habeas relief in district court. The district court, relying on this court's opinion in Mikes v. Borg, 947 F.2d 353 (9th Cir.1991), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 3055, 120 L.Ed.2d 921 (1992), concluded that "the record does not contain sufficient evidence to permit the rational factfinder to determine when Mr. Taylor's print was impressed ... [or] that the windowsill was inaccessible to Mr. Taylor before the crime." The court, therefore, held that Taylor's conviction violated due process and granted his petition for habeas corpus. We granted the government's motion for a stay of the district court's judgment pending resolution of this appeal.


We review de novo the district court's grant of habeas corpus. Adams v. Peterson, 968 F.2d 835, 843 (9th Cir.1992) (en banc), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 1818, 123 L.Ed.2d 448 (1993). "To the extent it is necessary to review findings of fact, the clearly erroneous standard applies." Thomas v. Brewer, 923 F.2d 1361, 1364 (9th Cir.1991).

We must decide "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." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781-2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979) (emphasis in original); McMillan v. Gomez, 19 F.3d 465, 469 (9th Cir.1994). When determining the sufficiency of the evidence, we must keep in mind that "the prosecution need not affirmatively 'rule out every hypothesis except that of guilt,' and that a reviewing court 'faced with a record of historical facts that supports conflicting inferences must presume--even if it does not affirmatively appear in the record--that the trier of fact resolved any such conflicts in favor of the prosecution, and must defer to that resolution.' " Wright v. West, --- U.S. ----, ---- - ----, 112 S.Ct. 2482, 2492-93, 120 L.Ed.2d 225 (1992) (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319, 99 S.Ct. at 2789) (citations omitted).

In finding the fingerprint evidence against Taylor insufficient, the district court concluded this case was governed by Mikes v. Borg, 947 F.2d 353 (9th Cir.1991), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 3055, 120 L.Ed.2d 921 (1992), a murder case posing a similar sufficiency question. The victim in Mikes was killed with a detached turnstile post that the police recovered from the scene of the crime. Some, but not all, of the fingerprints taken from this post, and from another similar post in the victim's basement, belonged to Mikes. These prints were the only evidence linking Mikes to the crime.

In Mikes, we articulated the requirements for a fingerprint-only case:

We have held that fingerprint evidence alone may under certain circumstances support a conviction. However, in fingerprint-only cases in which the prosecution's theory is based on the premise that the defendant handled certain objects while committing the crime in question, the record must contain sufficient evidence from which the trier of fact could reasonably infer that the fingerprints were in fact impressed at that time and not at some earlier date. In order to meet this standard the prosecution must present evidence sufficient to permit the jury to conclude that the objects on which the fingerprints appear were inaccessible to the defendant prior to the time of the commission of the crime.

Id. at 356-57 (emphasis in original) (citations omitted).

We then focused on the fact that the detached posts had only been in the victim's basement for four months, prior to which they had been on display in a store and had possibly even been used as part of an operating turnstile unit. We concluded the "evidence in the record is wholly insufficient to preclude the reasonable possibility that Mikes' fingerprints were placed on the posts during the period prior to [the victim's] acquisition of them." Id. at 358-59. We added that "the defendant need not explain how or when his fingerprints were placed on the object in question; that burden lies elsewhere." Id. at 359.

In the present case, the district court determined the evidence was insufficient to permit the factfinder to conclude that the windowsill was inaccessible to Taylor prior to the crime. The court observed:

Three reasonable inferences remain that point to his innocence. He could have impressed the print earlier as an invited guest in the apartment. He could have left the print earlier while doing paid work on the windowsill. He could have left the print earlier while engaged in criminal activity. The burden for rebutting these inferences lies with the People. This burden the People have not met.

ER at 8. The State argues these "inferences" are pure speculation by the district court and points out that no evidence supports any of them.

We conclude the district court's reliance on Mikes is misplaced because the facts in that case are distinguishable from those before us today. The turnstile and the posts in Mikes had been in a store--a public place where anyone could have had access to them. The inside of Ms. Jackson's windowsill was not in a public place, and Taylor would not have had access to it absent some unusual circumstance....

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