Supreme Court Update: Coleman v. Johnson (11-1052), Parker v. Matthews (11-845) and Order List

June 12, 2012 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!

This Update will bring you two per curiam habeas decisions, Coleman v. Johnson (11-1052) and Parker v. Matthews (11-845), as well as a number of recent cert grants. (Hey, they can't all be news breakers!)

In Coleman v. Johnson (11-1052), the Court reversed the Third Circuit's decision granting Johnson habeas relief based on insufficiency of the evidence. The Court didn't find the evidence so skimpy. Johnson was convicted as an accomplice to the murder of Williams, who was shot by Walker. The evidence at trial demonstrated that: Johnson and Walker were close friends; Walker announced earlier in the day that he was going to go "holler at" Williams about a debt; Walker did approach Williams about the money, whereupon Williams beat him with a broomstick; and that after the fight, Walker said multiple times that he was going to "kill that kid." This all occurred in Johnson's presence. Later that night at a bar, the three men engaged in a heated argument and were thrown out. They walked away from the bar in a single file line, Walker in the front, Williams in the middle, Johnson in the rear, until they came to an alleyway. Walker was wearing a long coat and walking as if he had something concealed under it. Walker and Williams entered the alley while Johnson waited at its entrance. Walker then shot and killed Williams. Johnson was convicted as an accomplice, but the Third Circuit eventually reversed, finding that while the evidence may have been sufficient to establish that Johnson had a common intent to confront or threaten Williams, it was not sufficient to establish that Johnson had a common intent to kill Williams. In determining that the evidence was insufficient, the Third Circuit looked to Pennsylvania law distinguishing a "reasoned inference" from "mere speculation."

The Court reversed, in a brief opinion. First, the Court pointed out that the constitutional standard of sufficiency of the evidence does not depend on how a state might define "reasonable inferences." "[T]he minimum amount of evidence that the Due Process Clause requires to prove the offense is purely a matter of federal law." And here, that standard was met. The jury heard evidence that Johnson saw the altercation earlier in the day between Walker and Williams, heard Walker repeatedly threaten to kill Williams, and that Johnson and Walker "walked" Williams into the alley, where Johnson waited (potentially to bar Williams' escape) while Walker killed him. Under the double deference given to state court decisions under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), Johnson could not establish entitlement to federal habeas relief.

Parker v. Matthews (11-845) yielded another per curiam reversal in a habeas case. This time, the Court chastised the Sixth Circuit for setting aside two 29-year-old murder convictions based on the "flimsiest of rationales." Matthews borrowed money, bought a gun, waited a few hours, then went to his estranged wife's home – shooting her mother first, and then having sex twice with his wife before killing her several hours later. When the police found him, he was busy cleaning up from his crimes. He initially denied the crimes, but at trial, he shifted strategy, arguing that he acted under extreme emotional distress, which would decrease his exposure from first degree murder to manslaughter. Matthews put on a psychiatrist that testified that he suffered from "temporary emotional and behavioral disturbance in individuals who are subject to a variety of stresses." (I wonder if that has made it into the DSM5?) The stressors included a wife who belittled him, repeatedly reported him to the police, and allowed his child to cry outside on the street near his home. The State apparently elected not to put on an expert witness to contradict Matthews' evidence. Nevertheless, the jury convicted Matthews of two counts of first degree murder and sentenced him to death, rejecting his extreme emotional distress claim.

On direct review, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed Matthews' sentence, holding, among other things, that Matthews' conduct "before, during, and after" the murders was sufficient to convict him of capital murder. After his state habeas petition was denied, Matthews sought federal habeas relief. The district court denied his petition, but the Sixth Circuit reversed on two grounds. First, it found that the state courts improperly shifted the burden to Matthews to prove extreme emotional distress, rather than requiring the State to prove the absence of it, and that there was insufficient evidence to establish the absence of extreme emotional distress. Second, it found that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct when, during closing argument, the prosecutor suggested that Matthews' defense counsel hatched the extreme emotional distress defense as a last ditch effort since no other defense was available and that Matthews had likely exaggerated his "symptoms" to his testifying psychiatrist.

The Court disagreed on both counts. The Court found that the jury instructions were sufficient to place the ultimate burden of proof of no extreme emotional distress on the State, even though the initial burden of production lay with Matthews. Even though the State did not present its own expert witness, the jury was not bound to accept Matthews' expert's testimony and the jurors could consider their own commonsense understanding of emotional disturbance. Even accepting the expert's diagnosis, the jury may well have found that it was insufficient to establish that Matthews was acting under an extreme emotional disturbance "for which there was a reasonable justification or excuse under the circumstances as [Matthews] believed them to be." Matthews' conduct in planning the crime, his delay between killing his mother-in-law and his wife, and his post-crime cleaning spree combined with denials of guilt provided a sufficient basis for the jury to find no extreme emotional distress.

Turning to the prosecutor's closing argument, the Court acknowledged that some of the prosecutor's comments could have been taken to infer collusion between Matthews, his lawyer, and his expert. But the prosecutor made clear immediately after those statements that he was not opining that the expert lied. Further, the Court had never prohibited prosecutors from arguing that a defendant has a motive to exaggerate. Moreover, the Sixth Circuit erred in evaluating the impact of the prosecutor's misconduct by standards announced in its own precedents, rather than those announced by the Supreme Court, as required under AEDPA. (Indeed, the Court previously reversed the Sixth Circuit for this exact error, which it did not hesitate to point out!)

The Court also added four more cases to its docket for next Term, a peek at things to come:

Marx v. General Revenue Corp. (11-1175) asks whether a prevailing defendant in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act case may be awarded costs where the lawsuit was not "brought in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment."

Bailey v. US (11-770) asks whether "police officers may detain an individual incident to the execution of a search warrant when the individual has left the immediate vicinity of the premises before the warrant is executed."

Evans v. Michigan (11-1327) presents this question: "Does the Double Jeopardy Clause bar retrial after the trial judge erroneously holds a particular fact to be an element of the offense and then grants a midtrial directed verdict of acquittal because the prosecution failed to prove that fact?"

Amgen, Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans (11-1085) will require the Court to address two questions at the top of any security litigator's list: "(1) Whether, in a misrepresentation case under SEC Rule l0b-5, the district court must require proof of materiality before certifying a plaintiff class based on the fraud-on-the-market theory. (2) Whether, in such a case, the district court must allow the defendant to present evidence rebutting the applicability of the fraud-on-the-market theory before certifying a plaintiff class based on that theory."

We'll be back in your inboxes soon with more decisions!

Kim & Jenny

From the Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana. For more information, contact Kim Rinehart or any other member of the Practice Group at 203-498-4400