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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Previewing the Coming Term (Part 3): McDaniel v. Brown

[This is the third in a series of posts by CrimProf’s graduate fellow, Peter Stockburger (University of San Diego Class of 2009), previewing the criminal law and procedure cases scheduled for argument in the U.S. Supreme Court this coming term. Peter excerpts and paraphrases the briefs of the parties to provide an overview of the cases and the advocates’ arguments. Links to the briefs of the parties appear at the end of the summary.]

Docket No.: 08-559
Case: E.K. McDaniel, Warden, et al., v. Troy Brown
Oral Argument Date: originally scheduled for October 13, 2009, but subsequently removed from argument calendar

Issue:  Whether, on federal habeas review, the evidence underlying the defendant’s conviction for sexual assault was clearly insufficient under Jackson v. Virginia (1979).

Factual and Procedural History:  In 1994, Troy Brown, respondent, was arrested for the sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl in Carlin, Nevada.  At trial, the prosecution presented testimonial evidence from a DNA expert, Renee Romero, who testified that, among other things, there was a 99% chance that Brown was the assailant.  Brown was subsequently convicted on several counts of sexual assault and one count of child neglect.

Brown appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, arguing, among other things, that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction.  The Nevada Supreme Court vacated the child neglect charge and remanded the case for resentencing on the second sexual assault count.  The trial court re-sentenced Brown to life with the possibility of parole on both counts, to run consecutively.  Brown again appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, which rejected his appeal.  Brown filed a state petition for post-conviction relief, which was denied by the state court.

In 2004, Brown filed a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus, arguing violations of due process and ineffective assistance of counsel.  The district court granted Brown’s petition, permitting Brown to expand the record by providing testimony of a professor who directly discredited Romero’s initial DNA testimony.  The district court concluded that, in light of this new evidence, Romero’s testimony was unreliable, and absent it no rational trier of fact could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Brown was guilty of each and every element of the offenses with which he was charged. 

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding the conflicts in the evidence “simply too stark for any rational trier of fact to believe that [Brown] was the assailant beyond a reasonable doubt, an essential element of any sexual assault charge.”  Therefore, according to the Ninth Circuit, the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision was an “unreasonable application” of the Jackson v. Virginia (1979) standard, which stands for the proposition that a conviction must be upheld 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.

Summary of Petitioner’s Argument:  Petitioner argues the Nevada Supreme Court’s examination of Brown’s sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim under the Jackson standard was neither contrary to clearly established federal law nor an objectively unreasonable application of Jackson.

According to petitioner, the Ninth Circuit erroneously determined that the Nevada Supreme Court did not apply the Jackson standard and that, therefore, its adjudication of Brown’s claim was “contrary to” clearly established federal law.  Petitioner argues that evidence not presented to the jury may not be considered in any application of the Jackson standard and that, accordingly, the Ninth Circuit erred.

Moreover, petitioner argues that resolving the case in favor of Brown would “have the effect of making a state court trial a mere formality, a warm-up for proceedings in federal court, and would permit federal courts to usurp the province of the jury to resolve conflicts, determine the credibility of the evidence, the reliability of the evidence and the weight to give evidence.”  Consequently, according to petitioner, federal habeas courts are required to determine whether the State court’s adjudication of a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim was an objectively unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, not merely erroneous.  Here, the Ninth Circuit and the federal district court failed to abide by such a standard. 

Summary of Respondent’s Argument:  In respondent’s view, the constitutional error in this case is “clear and fundamental.”  According to respondent, the prosecutor in this case obtained a guilty verdict “despite demonstrable evidentiary shortcomings in the case against [him].”  Consequently, respondent argues these errors rendered the trial fundamentally unfair and were in violation of his right to due process.  According to respondent, habeas relief was plainly justified in light of the erroneous use of unreliable DNA testimony to achieve a guilty verdict. 

Interestingly, respondent claims the Ninth Circuit incorrectly addressed this issue under the Jackson standard rather than a harmless error analysis.  Respondent concedes this case cannot be decided pursuant to Jackson.  However, respondent argues that under either the standard applied by the Ninth Circuit or the harmless standard, respondent’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus was properly granted.  In the alternative, respondent asks for the case to be remanded to the Ninth Circuit for analysis under the harmless error standard.

Brief for Petitioner E.K. McDaniel, Warden, and the Attorney General of the State of Nevada

Brief for Respondent Troy Brown

Reply Brief for Petitioner E.K. McDaniel, Warden, and the Attorney General of the State of Nevada

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