The 6-to-3 vote marks the third time the justices have reversed a panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in the same case, Cavazos v. Smith (10-1115).
The case involves the conviction of Shirley Ree Smith for allegedly shaking and killing 7-week-old Etzel. At her 1997 trial, jurors heard conflicting testimony about whether the infant died of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) or of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The jury decided that Ms. Smith had caused the death. She was subsequently sentenced to serve 15 years to life in prison.
The verdict was upheld by the trial judge, a state appeals court, and a federal judge. But the Ninth Circuit panel disagreed with the jury’s interpretation of the evidence, and reversed the conviction.
In vacating that opinion, the Supreme Court essentially scolded the Ninth Circuit for reaching a legal conclusion that was “plainly wrong,” and for substituting its view of the evidence in place of the jury’s conclusions.
“It is the responsibility of the jury – not the court – to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial,” the court said in an unsigned opinion. The justices said a reviewing court may set aside a jury’s verdict for insufficient evidence only when “no rational trier of fact could have agreed with the jury.”
“Because rational people can sometimes disagree, the inevitable consequence of this settled law is that judges will sometimes encounter convictions that they believe to be mistaken, but that they must nonetheless uphold,” the court said.
“The court of appeals in this case substituted its own judgment for that of a California jury on the question of whether the prosecution’s or the defense’s expert witnesses more persuasively explained the cause of a death.”
In a dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer said justice is not served by the high court’s reversal. They said they would allow the Ninth Circuit panel’s decision to stand.
“What does this court achieve other than to prolong Smith’s suffering and her separation from her family,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in dissent. “Is this court’s intervention really necessary?”
Ginsburg said new information (obtained since Smith’s trial) about shaken baby syndrome “casts grave doubt” on the charges against Smith. She added that uncontraverted evidence shows that Smith poses no threat to her family or others.
The unsigned majority decision counters this point, saying that considerations of whether Smith has been punished enough and poses no danger to society would perhaps be grounds for executive clemency.
But the majority justices concluded: “The decision below cannot be allowed to stand.”
The court noted: “In light of the evidence presented at trial, the Ninth Circuit plainly erred in concluding that the jury’s verdict was irrational, let alone that it was unreasonable for the California Court of Appeal to think otherwise.”
“Doubts about whether Smith is in fact guilty are understandable. But it is not the job of this court, and was not that of the Ninth Circuit, to decide whether the state’s theory was correct,” the court said. “The jury decided that question, and its decision is supported by the record.”