Hot Docs: SCOTUS reinstates life imprisonment sentence

May 31, 2012

John Roberts go to jail cardLet’s say that you were just sentenced to life imprisonment.

You appeal, believing that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction.

The first appeal fails.

The second appeal fails.

With all of your state remedies exhausted, you head to federal court.

That appeal fails, but you persevere and appeal again.

Finally, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturns your conviction.

Just as you breathe a sigh of relief, the state petitions for certiorari to the Supreme Court.

Though disheartened at the prospect of losing at the Supreme Court, you think that if the Supreme Court denies certiorari – as it does with almost 99% of the cases seeking cert – you’re a free man.

Even if the Court decides to hear the case, you still get to make an argument and you have until next term to put it together.

Lorenzo Johnson faced this exact situation.

Unfortunately for Johnson, the Supreme Court not only granted certiorari, it issued a per curiam opinion overturning the appeals court’s decision in the same breath.

In other words, at the same time that the Supreme Court agreed to take on the case, it overruled the appeals court decision and reinstated Johnson’s life sentence.

And it did all of this anonymously and without hearing oral arguments or accepting briefs.

Hot Doc: Coleman v. Johnson

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

Considering what Johnson was convicted of – accomplice to and co-conspirator in first-degree murder – maybe we shouldn’t feel that bad for him.

Although, a look at the facts surrounding the murder lends some credibility to Johnson’s position:

The murder was committed by Corey Walker, an acquaintance of Johnson’s.

Walker had attempted to collect a debt from Taraja Williams at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and an altercation ensued which ended after Williams beat Walker with a broomstick in front of a crowd of people.

Humiliated, Walker repeatedly expressed his anger about the incident, saying that he was going to “kill” Williams.

Later that night at a bar, the three got into another argument, and were ejected by the bouncer.

According to the bouncer, the three walked into an alley together in a single-file line, with Walker in front, Williams in the middle, and Johnson in the back.

Walker was wearing a long leather coat, walking as if he had something concealed underneath it.

A loud “boom” was heard, and reportedly, two silhouettes were seen fleeing the scene.

Williams was found dead of a shotgun wound, and, at this point, there’s no dispute over the fact that Walker was responsible.

But was Johnson the accessory and co-conspirator in the murder?

According to the jury at Johnson’s original trial, he was, and the evidence relied on to reach this conclusion was the fact that Johnson was acquainted with Walker, heard Walker repeatedly state that he planned to “kill” Williams, and that he was in the alley at the time of the murder.

It doesn’t really seem that there would be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson was part of the murder, but, because of a legal technicality, that was irrelevant to the Supreme Court in its decision.

The court of appeals decision that overturned Johnson’s conviction relied on a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, Jackson v. Virginia, which set a standard for federal courts reviewing state criminal convictions.

Under Jackson, evidence is sufficient to support a conviction 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.”

Though the court of appeals found that no rational trier of fact could have convicted Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering that the phrase “any rational trier of fact” invites courts to invent scenarios in which the evidence is contorted to make possible a finding of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

This, added with the high level of deference given to jury determinations, all but ensured that Johnson’s conviction would remain intact.

If the ruling could serve as any kind of lesson, it would be to make the best case possible in trial, because appeals courts hate to question a jury’s decision.