Williamson v. State

Decision Date08 September 1981
Docket NumberNo. 37166,37166
Citation281 S.E.2d 512,248 Ga. 47
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Charles S. Thornton, Atlanta, for Bobby Lee Williamson.

Lewis R. Slaton, Dist. Atty., H. Allen Moye, Asst. Dist. Atty., Atlanta, for the State.

GREGORY, Justice.

We granted certiorari, 156 Ga.App. 615, 275 S.E.2d 699, in this case to consider two questions. First, whether the well-settled rule in this state that recent, unexplained possession of stolen property permits the jury to infer that the accused committed the theft, survives scrutiny under Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). Second, whether the jury charge in this case on the aforementioned rule violates due process by shifting the burden of persuasion to the defendant.

The defendant Bobby Lee Williamson, was convicted of burglary and sentenced to ten years. Glenda Jenkins testified at trial that, on the evening of June 25, 1979, she returned home from work to find that her apartment had been broken into. Jenkins testified that a refrigerator, placed against the back door of her apartment to make the dwelling more secure, had been moved away from the door. The refrigerator cord had been cut, but Jenkins stated that the food in the refrigerator was still cold. Among the numerous items missing from her apartment were a component stereo set, television, clock radio and some personalized checks. Jenkins reported the model and serial numbers of the stolen items to investigating police officers. Several days later police recovered the stereo, television and radio when daily log-sheets from a local pawn shop, listing the model and serial numbers of all items pawned, established that these items had been pawned on the afternoon of June 25, 1979. The pawn tickets had been made out to the defendant and indicated his driver's license number. At trial police officers testified that the defendant admitted to them he had pawned the items, but stated that they did not belong to him; rather, he insisted that they belonged to a male friend who did not have the requisite identification to pawn them. Defendant stated that he had pawned them in his own name as a favor to his friend. At trial the defendant denied making this statement to police and testified that around 3:30 on the afternoon of June 25, he had pawned the items in his name for his girlfriend because she did not have a driver's license.

Police also recovered a number of the checks stolen from Jenkins' apartment which had been forged. Police officers testified the defendant admitted to them that he had driven his girlfriend around town while she cashed a number of the checks. At trial, defendant denied making this statement. On appeal defendant argued that the evidence was not sufficient to support the verdict.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant's conviction, stating, "The evidence was sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that, several hours after the burglary, appellant was in possession of items taken from the victim's apartment. In Humes v. State, 143 Ga.App. 229, 229-330, 237 S.E.2d 704 (1977), it was held: When property alleged to be stolen is proven to be stolen property and the crime charged has been committed by someone, the recent unexplained possession of the stolen property by the defendant is a circumstance from which guilt may be inferred. Gilliard v. State, 17 Ga.App. 364, 86 S.E. 939 (1915). From this it may be inferred that the defendant charged committed the theft proven. This being so, no further proof, circumstantial or direct, showing that the appellant committed the burglary was necessary for conviction." The court, however, expressed "grave doubts" as to the validity of this rule under the holding of Jackson v. Virginia, supra.

(1)(a) While it is the rule in this state that recent unexplained possession of stolen property permits the jury to infer that the accused committed the theft, "it should be emphasized that the recent unexplained possession creates only a permissible inference of guilt of a 'presumption of fact' in terms of Code Ann. § 38-113 which the jury may or may not draw." Byrd v. Hopper, 234 Ga. 248, 250-51, 215 S.E.2d 251 (1975). "The nearer the possession to the time of the (theft), the stronger will be the inference of guilt; and the question of the result of the lapse of time is for the jury." Chubbs v. State, 204 Ga. 762, 764, 51 S.E.2d 851 (1949). Recent unexplained possession of stolen goods "is a circumstance sufficient to authorize the jury to find that the accused is guilty as charged (assuming other elements of the crime are proved), but it does not create a presumption of law against the accused, and it is not of itself necessarily proof of his guilt." Gravitt v. State, 114 Ga. 841, 40 S.E. 1003 (1902). "(T)he greatest length to which the rule is carried out is that it is sufficient to warrant the conviction of the accused." Id., at 842, 40 S.E. 1003.

To convict an accused under this rule, the State must prove that (1) the goods in the accused's possession were recently stolen and (2) someone committed the crime. If there is no satisfactory explanation of the defendant's possession, then the "proof of these facts beyond a reasonable doubt creates a presumption or permissible inference of defendant's guilt." Selph v. State, 142 Ga.App. 26, 29, 234 S.E.2d 831 (1977).

(b) In Jackson v. Virginia, supra, the United States Supreme Court examined the constitutional underpinnings of Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U.S. 199, 80 S.Ct. 624, 4 L.Ed.2d 654 (1960) and In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970) in order to determine the appropriate standard for evaluating the evidence on review in a federal habeas corpus case.

Thompson, supra, held that a conviction based upon a record devoid of any evidence of a crucial element of the offense charged is constitutionally infirm. Prior to Jackson, Federal courts reviewed state court convictions on petition for habeas corpus to determine if the conviction was supported by "some evidence." 1 Rarely did the federal courts undertake a review of the sufficiency of the evidence. 2 In Winship the court concluded that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment constitutionally protects an accused against conviction except upon evidence that is sufficient to support a conclusion that every element of the crime has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. The Jackson court rejected the Thompson "no evidence" standard as "simply inadequate to protect against misapplications of the constitutional standard of reasonable doubt," Jackson at 2790, and concluded that Winship established the quantum of proof constitutionally demanded for a valid determination of guilt. The court then went on to say that, on review, "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... This familiar standard gives full play to the responsibility of the trier of fact fairly to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts." Jackson at 2789. (Emphasis supplied).

It has been argued that the standard for review promulgated in Jackson "intrudes upon the fact finder's discretion only to the extent necessary to protect defendants from convictions that clearly offend due process", 3 and that this new standard "though permitting an evaluation of the evidence, may, in fact, be no more rigorous than the Thompson standard as it was used in practice." 4

Before examining the inference in this case in light of Jackson v. Virginia, it is helpful to consider decisions by the United States Supreme Court which have analyzed the uses of presumptions and inferences.

(c) The Supreme Court has noted that "(i)nferences and presumptions are a staple of our adversary system of factfinding. It is often necessary for the trier of fact to determine the existence of an element of the crime that is, an 'ultimate' or 'elemental' fact from the existence of one or more 'evidentiary' or 'basic' facts. (cits. omitted). The value of these evidentiary devices and their validity under the Due Process Clause, vary from case to case, however, depending on the strength of the connection between the particular basic and (ultimate) facts involved and on the degree to which the device curtails the factfinder's freedom to assess the evidence independently." 5 Ulster County, New York v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 156, 99 S.Ct. 2213, 60 L.Ed.2d 777 (1978).

In Tot v. United States, 319 U.S. 463, 467, 63 S.Ct. 1241, 87 L.Ed. 1519) (1943) the Court outlined the limits which the 5th and 14th Amendments place "upon the power ... to make the proof of one fact or group of facts evidence of the existence of the ultimate fact on which guilt is predicated." The Court concluded that an inference or presumption could not be sustained if there was "no rational connection between the fact proved and the ultimate fact presumed, if the inference of the one from proof of the other is arbitrary because of lack of connection between the two in common experience." Id.

Twenty years later the Court applied this test to two closely-related statutory presumptions, upholding one and striking down the other.

In United States v. Gainey, 380 U.S. 63, 85 S.Ct. 754, 13 L.Ed.2d 658 (1965), the defendant was convicted under 26 U.S.C. § 5601(a)(4) of "carrying on" the business of an illegal distillery. The trial court charged the jury that 26 U.S.C. § 5601(b)(2) created a presumption that the defendant's presence at the site of the still was sufficient evidence to authorize his conviction under § 5601(a)(4) unless he explained his presence to the satisfaction of the jury.

To determine whether there was a rational connection between the fact proved (presence at the site of the...

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