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Case Update

One criminal case from the US Supreme Court this week, a summary reversal in Coleman v. Johnson.  The 3rd Circuit had vacated Johnson's murder conviction on habeas review, finding that the evidence was insufficient.  Back in 1979, in Jackson v. Virginia, the Court held that the concept of insufficiency of the evidence had constitutional dimensions:  the due process clause forbids a criminal conviction where the evidence is legally insufficient.  That's all well and good, but finding a case which meets that requirement has become as elusive as the Holy Grail:  just last year the Court reiterated the primacy of the jury's role in deciding what conclusions should be drawn from the evidence, and that an appellate court "may set aside the jury's verdict on the ground of insufficient evidence only if no rational trier of fact could have agreed with the jury."  This is further complicated by the obsequiously deferential standards for habeas review, which prohibits overturning a state court decision simply because the federal court disagrees with it; habeas relief on the ground of insufficiency can be granted only if the state court decision was "objectively unreasonable."  This jurors-as-drooling-idiots cum state-appellate-judges-as-drooling-idiots test should provide little discouragement to habeas practitioners, who already labor with the knowledge that their chance of success makes Pickett's Charge look like a slam-dunk in comparison.

What was of much more significance than the case the Court did decide was one that it will decide in the future:  the 1st Circuit's decision invalidating Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress in 1996, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples, even if the marriage is recognized in their state of domicile.  The case is guaranteed to wind up in the Court's lap.

But that's for next term.  The Court's current one has only another four weeks to go, and in addition to cases on health care reform and the Arizona immigration law, there are decisions awaiting in several criminal cases, including the two on whether juveniles can be given a sentence of life without parole in a homicide case, and the retroactivity of the reduction in penalties for crack.

Down in Columbus, no decisions of note.  The court has oral argument on Tuesday, with one criminal case on the docket, involving whether a juvenile can be bound over for trial as an adult without an amenability hearing.  The juvenile court had concluded one wasn't necessary because the juvenile had been found not amenable in another case.  The legislature had amended the statute, however, to preclude the necessity of a second amenability hearing only where the juvenile had been bound over and convicted in the first.  I haven't watched an oral argument in a while, so maybe I'll stock up some popcorn and catch this one.

In the courts of appeals...

In State v. Greathouse, the defendant argues that he's entitled to a resentencing because the original determination of whether his offenses were allied, at both the trial and appellate level, occurred under the Rance test.  It is the 2nd District's sad duty to inform him that it doesn't work that way:   a new ruling applies only to cases that are pending, and a "defendant is not entitled to the benefit of any new case law after the disposition of his direct appeal"... A trial court, in fashioning a sentence, can consider charges that were dropped in the plea-bargaining process, the 6th District notes in State v. Degens... There's a concept in eyewitness identification known as "weapon focus":  that a witness' identification is more suspect when the perpetrator has a weapon, because the witness will be focused on that, rather than the perpetrator's characteristics.  That takes an unusual turn in State v. Young, where Young argues that his conviction was against the manifest weight of the evidence because the two witnesses were inconsistent in their identifications.  There was one thing they were consistent about, though:  the suspect had a tattoo of a cross on the forearm of his gun hand.  That was enough for the 9th to affirm the conviction...

Interesting result in State v. KnappWhile allegedly driving drunk, Knapp struck a pedestrian and killed her.  The pedestrian was wearing dark clothing at night and walking the wrong way on the road.  The law is that in order for the defendant to avoid conviction, the victim's negligence must be the sole cause of the accident.  The 11th District uses this to uphold the trial court's refusal to instruct the jury on the statutory requirements for pedestrians in these situations... Also interesting is the issue raised in State v. Shipman, where the defendant had been given a three-year mandatory sentence on a third-degree crack cocaine possession charge on August 31, 2011.  A month later, HB 86 took effect.  The amended section on judicial release specifies that the law to be applied in determining a defendant's eligibility is the law at the time he files for judicial release, not the law at the time of sentencing.  Judicial release is barred for most offenses which involve mandatory time, but in Shipman's case the changes in HB 86 also made his crime a 4th degree felony with a presumption of community control.  He filed for judicial release, it was granted, the State appealed, and the 3rd District dodges the issue by dismissing the appeal, noting that the statute forbids appeal by the State of a grant of judicial release for anything other than a first or second degree felony.  But something to keep in mind...

This should be a fun Thanksgiving.  In Friel v. Swartz, a father sues his daughter on a promissory note.  The daughter counterclaims, contending that the father's lawsuit is in retaliation for her testifying for her sister in a sex discrimination case against the father's company.


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