January 11, 2010

Supreme Court Decides McDaniel v. Brown

On January 11, 2010, the Supreme Court decided McDaniel v. Brown, No. 08-559.

In January of 1994, a young girl in Nevada was raped. The jury convicted a neighbor, Troy Brown, of the rape. The strongest evidence tying Brown to the rape was testimony from the state's DNA expert that the random-match probability (i.e., the probability that another person in the general population would share the same DNA profile) was one in 3 million. There was other evidence connecting Brown to the crime—but there was conflicting evidence as well, including the young girl's inconclusive identification of the rapist and conflicting eyewitness testimony.

The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on direct appeal and after postconviction proceedings.

Brown then filed a federal habeas case, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of the rape under the standard of Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), under which a state prisoner is entitled to habeas relief if a federal judge finds that "upon the record evidence adduced at the trial no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

The federal habeas court, in reliance on misstatements of the state's DNA expert regarding the random-match probability and a contrary expert report issued long after the trial and conviction, granted Brown's habeas petition, holding that any rational jury would have had a reasonable doubt about Brown's guilt. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the state DNA expert's "unreliable and misleading testimony" in combination with the inconsistencies in the girl's account of the rape and the conflicting eyewitness testimony made it unreasonable for the Nevada Supreme Court to have rejected Brown's insufficient-evidence claim.

The Supreme Court reversed in a unanimous per curiam opinion. Brown agreed on appeal that the Ninth Circuit erred in its analysis of the Jackson standard for insufficient-evidence arguments, but he argued that the admission of the state DNA expert's testimony was fundamentally unfair and violated his due process rights, and that the error was not harmless.

The Court agreed that Brown was wise to abandon his argument based on Jackson, because considering all of the evidence at trial, a reasonable jury could have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court also emphasized that the lower courts' reliance on a report that was created more than a decade after the trial was inappropriate, as a Jackson challenge must be resolved based only on evidence that was presented at trial. As for Brown's new "DNA due process" argument, the Court held that Brown had forfeited the claim because he made it for the first time in his brief to the Supreme Court, and never made it in his original habeas petition or in argument to either of the courts below.

The Court issued a per curiam unanimous opinion. Justices Scalia and Thomas concurred.

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