Wright v. West

Decision Date19 June 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91-542,91-542
Citation505 U.S. 277,120 L.Ed.2d 225,112 S.Ct. 2482
PartiesEllis B. WRIGHT, Jr., Warden and Mary Sue Terry, Attorney General of Virginia, Petitioners, v. Frank Robert WEST, Jr
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

A few weeks after a Virginia home was burglarized, over 15 of the missing items were recovered from respondent West's home. At his trial on grand larceny charges, he admitted to a prior felony conviction, but denied having stolen the items, explaining that he frequently bought and sold merchandise at different flea markets. He offered no explanation for how he had acquired any of the stolen items until cross-examination, when he gave vague, evasive and even contradictory answers; could not remember how he acquired several major items, including a television set and a coffee table; and failed to produce any evidence corroborating his story. West was convicted. The State Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, both times rejecting, inter alia, West's contention that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On federal habeas, the District Court also rejected that contention. The Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that the standard of Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560—that evidence is sufficient to support a conviction as a matter of due process if, "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"—had not been met.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

931 F.2d 262 (CA4 1991) reversed and remanded.

Justice THOMAS, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice SCALIA, concluded that regardless of whether a federal habeas court should review state-court applications of law to fact deferentially or de novo, the trial record contains more than enough evidence to support West's conviction. Jackson repeatedly emphasizes the deference owed the trier of fact and the sharply limited nature of constitutional sufficiency review. The case against West was strong. The jury was entitled to disbelieve his uncorroborated and confused testimony, discount his credibility on account of his prior felony conviction, and take his demeanor into account. The jury was also permitted to consider what it concluded to be perjured testimony as affirmative evidence of guilt. Pp. 295-297.

Justice WHITE concluded that there was enough evidence to support West's conviction under the Jackson standard. P. 297.

Justice O'CONNOR, joined by Justice BLACKMUN and Justice STEVENS, concluded that the evidence supported West's conviction and that there was no need to decide the standard of review issue to decide this case. Pp. 305-306.

Justice KENNEDY concluded that the evidence was sufficient to convince a rational factfinder of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 should not be interpreted as calling into question the settled principle that mixed questions are subject to de novo review on federal habeas corpus. Pp. 306-310.

Justice SOUTER concluded that West sought the benefit of a "new rule," and thus his claim was barred by Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334. The Court of Appeals misapplied Teague § commands, since, while the Jackson rule was "old" enough to have predated the finality of West's conviction, it was not specific enough to dictate the rule on which the conviction was held unlawful. Although the State Supreme Court was not entitled to disregard Jackson, it does not follow from Jackson's rule that the insufficiency of the evidence to support West's conviction was apparent. Virginia has long recognized a rule that evidence of falsely explained possession of recently stolen property is sufficient to sustain a finding that the possessor took the goods, and the jury's rejection of West's explanation implies a finding that his explanation was false. Virginia's rule is reasonable and has been accepted as good law against the backdrop of a general state sufficiency standard no less stringent than the Jackson rule. Thus, it is not possible to say that reasonable jurists could not have considered Virginia's rule compatible with the Jackson standard. Pp. 310-316.

THOMAS, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., and SOUTER, J., filed opinions concurring in the judgment.

Donald R. Curry, Richmond, Va., for petitioners.

Maureen E. Mahoney, Washington, D.C., as amicus curiae for U.S. by special leave of Court.

Steven H. Goldblatt, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Justice THOMAS announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice SCALIA joined.

In this case, we must determine whether the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit correctly applied our decision in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), in concluding that the evidence against respondent Frank West was insufficient, as a matter of due process, to support his state-court conviction for grand larceny.


Between December 13 and December 26, 1978, someone broke into the Westmoreland County, Virginia, home of Angelo Cardova and stole items valued at approximately $3,500. On January 10, 1979, police conducted a lawful search of the Gloucester County, Virginia, home of West and his wife. They discovered several of the items stolen from the Cardova home, including various electronic equipment (two television sets and a record player); articles of clothing (an imitation mink coat with the name "Esther" embroidered in it, a silk jacket emblazoned "Korea 1970," and a pair of shoes); decorations (several wood carvings and a mounted lobster); and miscellaneous household objects (a mirror framed with seashells, a coffee table, a bar, a sleeping bag and some silverware). These items were valued at approximately $800, and the police recovered other, unspecified items of Cardova's property with an approximate value of $300.

West was charged with grand larceny. Testifying at trial on his own behalf, he admitted to a prior felony conviction, but denied having taken anything from Cardova's house. He explained that he had bought and sold "a lot of . . . merchandise" from "several guys" at "flea bargain places" where, according to West, "a lot of times you buy things . . . that are stolen" although "you never know it." App. 21. On cross-examination, West said that he had bought many of the stolen items from a Ronnie Elkins, whom West claimed to have known for years. West testified that he purchased one of the wood carvings, the jacket, mounted lobster, mirror and bar from Elkins for about $500. West initially guessed, and then twice positively asserted, that this sale occurred before January 1, 1979. In addition, West claimed to have purchased the coat from Elkins for $5 around January 1, 1979. His testimony did not make clear whether he was describing one transaction or two, whether there were any other transactions between himself and Elkins, where the transactions occurred, and whether the transactions occurred at flea markets.1 West testified further that he had purchased one of the television sets in an entirely separate transaction in Goochland County, from an individual whose name he had forgotten. Finally, West testified that he did not remember how he had acquired the second television, the coffee table, and the silverware.

Under then-applicable Virginia law, grand larceny was defined as the wrongful and nonconsensual taking of property worth at least $100, with the intent to deprive the owner of it permanently. See Va.Code § 18.2-95 (1975); Skeeter v. Commonwealth, 217 Va. 722, 725, 232 S.E.2d 756, 758 (1977). Virginia law permits an inference that a person who fails to explain, or falsely explains, his exclusive possession of recently stolen property is the thief. See, e.g., Moehring v. Commonwealth, 223 Va. 564, 568, 290 S.E.2d 891, 893 (1982); Best v. Commonwealth, 222 Va. 387, 389, 282 S.E.2d 16, 17 (1981). The trial court instructed the jurors about this permissive inference, but warned that the inference did not compromise their constitutional obligation to acquit unless they found that the State had established every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt (see In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970)).2

The jury returned a guilty verdict, and West received a 10-year prison sentence. West petitioned for an appeal, contending (among other things) that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In May 1980, the Supreme Court of Virginia refused the petition—a disposition indicating that the court found the petition without merit, see Saunders v. Reynolds, 214 Va. 697, 700, 204 S.E.2d 421, 424 (1974). Seven years later, West filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the same court, supported by an affidavit executed by Ronnie Elkins in April 1987. West renewed his claim that the original trial record contained insufficient evidence to support the conviction, and he argued in the alternative that Elkins's affidavit, which tended to corroborate West's trial testimony in certain respects, constituted new evidence entitling him to a new trial. The Supreme Court of Virginia again denied relief. West then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which rejected both claims and denied relief.

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. 931 F.2d 262 (1991). As the court correctly recognized, a claim that...

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