Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder after a bench
trial in a Virginia court, and his motion and petition in the state
courts to set aside the conviction on the ground that there was
insufficient evidence of premeditation, a necessary element of
first-degree murder, were denied. He then brought a habeas corpus
proceeding in Federal District Court, which, applying the "no
evidence" criterion of Thompson v. Louisville,
362 U. S. 199
found the record devoid of evidence of premeditation and granted
the writ. Applying the same criterion, the Court of Appeals
reversed, holding that there was some evidence that petitioner had
intended to kill the victim.
1. A federal habeas corpus court must consider not whether there
was any evidence to support a state court conviction, but whether
there was sufficient evidence to justify a rational trier of fact
to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In re Winship,
397 U. S. 358
443 U. S.
(a) In re Winship
presupposes, as an essential of the
due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, that no person
shall be made to suffer the onus of a criminal conviction except
upon sufficient proof -- defined as evidence necessary to convince
a trier of fact beyond a reasonable doubt of the existence of every
element of the offense. Pp. 443 U. S.
(b) After In re Winship,
the critical inquiry on review
of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction
must be not simply to determine whether the jury was properly
instructed on reasonable doubt, but to determine whether the record
evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt. The relevant question is whether, 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. The Thompson
evidence" rule is simply inadequate to protect against
misapplications of the constitutional standard of reasonable doubt.
Pp. 443 U. S.
(c) In a challenge to a state conviction brought under 28 U.S.C.
§ 2254, which requires a federal court to entertain a state
prisoner's claim that he is being held in "custody in violation of
Page 443 U. S. 308
or laws or treaties of the United States," the applicant is
entitled to habeas corpus relief if it is found that, upon the
evidence adduced at the trial, no rational trier of fact could have
found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Pp. 443 U. S.
2. A review of the record in this case in the light most
favorable to the prosecution shows that a rational factfinder could
have found petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of
first-degree murder under Virginia Law. Pp. 443 U. S.
580 F.2d 1048, affirmed.
STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which
BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J.,
filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J.,
and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post
p 443 U. S. 326
POWELL, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the
Page 443 U. S. 309
MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Constitution prohibits the criminal conviction of any person
except upon proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In re
Winship, 397 U. S. 358
question in this case is what standard is to be applied in a
federal habeas corpus proceeding when the claim is made that a
person has been convicted in a state court upon insufficient
The petitioner was convicted after a bench trial in the Circuit
Court of Chesterfield County, Va., of the first-degree murder of a
woman named Mary Houston Cole. [Footnote 1
] Under Virginia law, murder is defined as "the
unlawful killing of another with malice aforethought."
Stapleton v. Commonwealth,
123 Va. 825, 96 S.E. 801.
Premeditation, or specific intent to kill, distinguishes murder in
the first from murder in the second degree; proof of this element
is essential to conviction of the former offense, and the burden of
proving it clearly rests with the prosecution. Shiflett v.
143 Va. 609, 130 S.E. 777; Jefferson v.
214 Va. 432, 201 S.E.2d 749.
That the petitioner had shot and killed Mrs. Cole was not in
dispute at the trial. The State's evidence established that
Page 443 U. S. 310
she had been a member of the staff at the local county jail,
that she had befriended him while he was imprisoned there on a
disorderly conduct charge, and that, when he was released, she had
arranged for him to live in the home of her son and
daughter-in-law. Testimony by her relatives indicated that, on the
day of the killing, the petitioner had been drinking and had spent
a great deal of time shooting at targets with his revolver. Late in
the afternoon, according to their testimony, he had unsuccessfully
attempted to talk the victim into driving him to North Carolina.
She did drive the petitioner to a local diner. There the two were
observed by several police officers, who testified that both the
petitioner and the victim had been drinking. The two were observed
by a deputy sheriff as they were preparing to leave the diner in
her car. The petitioner was then in possession of his revolver, and
the sheriff also observed a kitchen knife in the automobile. The
sheriff testified that he had offered to keep the revolver until
the petitioner sobered up, but that the latter had indicated that
this would be unnecessary, since he and the victim were about to
engage in sexual activity.
Her body was found in a secluded church parking lot a day and a
half later, naked from the waist down, her slacks beneath her body.
Uncontradicted medical and expert evidence established that she had
been shot twice at close range with the petitioner's gun. She
appeared not to have been sexually molested. Six cartridge cases
identified as having been fired from the petitioner's gun were
found near the body.
After shooting Mrs. Cole, the petitioner drove her car to North
Carolina, where, after a short trip to Florida, he was arrested
several days later. In a post-arrest statement, introduced in
evidence by the prosecution, the petitioner admitted that he had
shot the victim. He contended, however, that the shooting had been
accidental. When asked to describe his condition at the time of the
shooting, he indicated that he had not been drunk, but had been
"pretty high." His
Page 443 U. S. 311
story was that the victim had attacked him with a knife when he
resisted her sexual advances. He said that he had defended himself
by firing a number of warning shots into the ground, and had then
reloaded his revolver. The victim, he said, then attempted to take
the gun from him, and the gun "went off" in the ensuing struggle.
He said that he fled without seeking help for the victim because he
was afraid. At the trial, his position was that he had acted in
self-defense. Alternatively, he claimed that, in any event, the
State's own evidence showed that he had been too intoxicated to
form the specific intent necessary under Virginia law to sustain a
conviction of murder in the first degree. [Footnote 2
The trial judge, declaring himself convinced beyond a reasonable
doubt that the petitioner had committed first-degree murder, found
him guilty of that offense. [Footnote 3
] The petitioner's motion to set aside the
judgment as contrary to the evidence was denied, and he was
sentenced to serve a term of 30 years in the Virginia state
penitentiary. A petition for writ of error to the Virginia Supreme
Court on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to support
the conviction was denied. [Footnote 4
Page 443 U. S. 312
The petitioner then commenced this habeas corpus proceeding in
the United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Virginia, raising the same basic claim. [Footnote 5
] Applying the "no evidence" criterion of
Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U. S. 199
District Court found the record devoid of evidence of
premeditation, and granted the writ. The Court of Appeals for the
Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment. [Footnote 6
] The court noted that a dissent from the denial
of certiorari in a case in this Court had exposed the question
whether the constitutional rule of In re Winship,
397 U. S. 358
might compel a new criterion by which the validity of a state
criminal conviction must be tested in a federal habeas corpus
proceeding. See Freeman v. Zahradnick,
429 U.S. 1111
(dissent from denial of certiorari). But the appellate court held
that, in the absence of further guidance from this Court, it would
apply the same "no evidence" criterion of Thompson v.
that the District Court had adopted. The court was
of the view that some evidence that the petitioner had intended to
kill the victim could be found in the facts that the petitioner had
reloaded his gun after firing warning shots, that he had had time
to do so, and that the victim was then shot not once, but twice.
The court also concluded that the state trial judge could have
found that the petitioner was not so intoxicated as to be incapable
We granted certiorari to consider the petitioner's claim that,
under In re Winship, supra,
a federal habeas corpus court
Page 443 U. S. 313
consider not whether there was any evidence to support a state
court conviction, but whether there was sufficient evidence to
justify a rational trier of the facts to find guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt. 439 U.S. 1001.
Our inquiry in this case is narrow. The petitioner has not
seriously questioned any aspect of Virginia law governing the
allocation of the burden of production or persuasion in a murder
trial. See Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.
; Patterson v. New York, 432 U.
. As the record demonstrates, the judge, sitting
as factfinder in the petitioner's trial, was aware that the State
bore the burden of establishing the element of premeditation, and
stated that he was applying the reasonable doubt standard in his
appraisal of the State's evidence. The petitioner, moreover, does
not contest the conclusion of the Court of Appeals that, under the
"no evidence" rule of Thompson v. Louisville, supra,
conviction of first-degree murder is sustainable. And he has not
attacked the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction of
second-degree murder. His sole constitutional claim, based squarely
is that the District Court and the Court of
Appeals were in error in not recognizing that the question to be
decided in this case is whether any rational factfinder could have
concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing for which the
petitioner was convicted was premeditated. The question thus raised
goes to the basic nature of the constitutional right recognized in
This is the first of our cases to expressly consider the
question whether the due process standard recognized in
constitutionally protects an accused against
conviction except upon evidence that is sufficient fairly to
support a conclusion
Page 443 U. S. 314
that every element of the crime has been established beyond a
reasonable doubt. Upon examination of the fundamental differences
between the constitutional underpinnings of Thompson v.
and of In re Winship, supra,
answer to that question, we think, is clear.
It is axiomatic that a conviction upon a charge not made or upon
a charge not tried constitutes a denial of due process. Cole v.
Arkansas, 333 U. S. 196
333 U. S. 201
Presnell v. Georgia, 439 U. S. 14
standards no more than reflect a broader premise that has never
been doubted in our constitutional system: that a person cannot
incur the loss of liberty for an offense without notice and a
meaningful opportunity to defend. E.g., Hovey v. Elliott,
167 U. S. 409
167 U. S.
-420. Cf. Boddie v. Connecticut,
401 U. S. 371
401 U. S.
-379. A meaningful opportunity to defend, if not the
right to a trial itself, presumes as well that a total want of
evidence to support a charge will conclude the case in favor of the
accused. Accordingly, we held in the Thompson
case that a
conviction based upon a record wholly devoid of any relevant
evidence of a crucial element of the offense charged is
constitutionally infirm. See also Vachon v. New Hampshire,
414 U. S. 478
Adderley v. Florida, 385 U. S. 39
Gregory v. Chicago, 394 U. S. 111
Douglas v. Buder, 412 U. S. 430
"no evidence" doctrine of Thompson v. Louisville
secures to an accused the most elemental of due process rights:
freedom from a wholly arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
The Court in Thompson
explicitly stated that the due
process right at issue did not concern a question of evidentiary
"sufficiency." 362 U.S. at 362
U. S. 199
. The right established in In re
however, clearly stands on a different footing.
involved an adjudication of juvenile delinquency
made by a judge under a state statute providing that the
prosecution must prove the conduct charged as delinquent -- which
would have been a criminal offense if engaged
in by an adult -- by a preponderance of the evidence.
Page 443 U. S. 315
Applying that standard, the judge was satisfied that the
juvenile was "guilty," but he noted that the result might well have
been different under a standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
In short, the record in Winship
was not totally devoid of
evidence of guilt.
The constitutional problem addressed in Winship
thus distinct from the stark problem of arbitrariness presented in
Thompson v. Louisville.
held for the first time that the Due Process Clause of the
Fourteenth Amendment protects a defendant in a criminal case
against conviction "except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of
every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is
charged." 397 U.S. at 397 U. S. 364
In so holding, the Court emphasized that proof beyond a reasonable
doubt has traditionally been regarded as the decisive difference
between criminal culpability and civil liability. Id.
397 U. S. 358
See Davis v. United States, 160 U.
; Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.
, 338 U. S. 174
Leland v. Oregon, 343 U. S. 790
J. Wigmore, Evidence § 2495, pp. 307-308 (3d ed.1940). Cf.
Woodby v. INS, 385 U. S. 276
385 U. S. 285
The standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, said the Court,
"plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure,"
because it operates to give "concrete substance" to the presumption
of innocence, to ensure against unjust convictions, and to reduce
the risk of factual error in a criminal proceeding. 397 U.S. at
397 U. S. 363
At the same time, by impressing upon the factfinder the need to
reach a subjective state of near certitude of the guilt of the
accused, the standard symbolizes the significance that our society
attaches to the criminal sanction, and thus to liberty itself.
at 397 U. S. 372
(Harlan, J., concurring).
The constitutional standard recognized in the Winship
case was expressly phrased as one that protects an accused against
a conviction except on "proof beyond a reasonable doubt. . . ." In
subsequent cases discussing the reasonable doubt standard, we have
never departed from this definition of the rule, or from
Page 443 U. S. 316
understanding of the central purposes it
serves. See, e.g., Ivan v. v. City of New York,
407 U. S. 203
407 U. S. 204
Lego v. Twomey, 404 U. S. 477
404 U. S.
-487; Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.
; Patterson v. New York, 432 U.
; Cool v. United States, 409 U.
, 409 U. S. 104
In short, Winship
presupposes as an essential of the due
process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment that no person shall
be made to suffer the onus of a criminal conviction except upon
sufficient proof -- defined as evidence necessary to convince a
trier of fact beyond a reasonable doubt of the existence of every
element of the offense.
Although several of our cases have intimated that the
factfinder's application of the reasonable doubt standard to the
evidence may present a federal question when a state conviction is
challenged, Lego v. Twomey, supra
at 404 U. S. 487
Johnson v. Louisiana, 406 U. S. 356
406 U. S. 360
the Federal Courts of Appeals have generally assumed that, so long
as the reasonable doubt instruction has been given at trial, the
no-evidence doctrine of Thompson v. Louisville
appropriate guide for a federal habeas corpus court to apply in
assessing a state prisoner's challenge to his conviction as founded
upon insufficient evidence. See, e.g., Cunha v. Brewer,
511 F.2d 894 (CA8). [Footnote
] We cannot agree.
doctrine requires more than simply a
Page 443 U. S. 317
ritual. A doctrine establishing so fundamental a substantive
constitutional standard must also require that the factfinder will
rationally apply that standard to the facts in evidence. [Footnote 8
] A "reasonable doubt," at a
minimum, is one based upon "reason." [Footnote 9
] Yet a properly instructed jury may
occasionally convict even when it can be said that no rational
trier of fact could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the
same may be said of a trial judge sitting as a jury. In a federal
trial, such an occurrence has traditionally been deemed to require
reversal of the conviction. Glasser v. United States,
315 U. S. 60
315 U. S. 80
Bronston v. United States, 409 U.
. See also, e.g., Curley v. United
81 U.S.App.D.C. 389, 392-393, 160 F.2d 229, 232-233.
Page 443 U. S. 318
proof beyond a reasonable doubt as an essential of Fourteenth
Amendment due process, it follows that, when such a conviction
occurs in a state trial, it cannot constitutionally stand.
A federal court has a duty to assess the historic facts when it
is called upon to apply a constitutional standard to a conviction
obtained in a state court. For example, on direct review of a state
court conviction, where the claim is made that an involuntary
confession was used against the defendant, this Court reviews the
facts to determine whether the confession was wrongly admitted in
evidence. Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.
, 361 U. S.
-210. Cf. Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.
, 420 U. S.
-175, and n. 10. The same duty obtains in federal
habeas corpus proceedings. See Townsend v. Sain,
372 U. S. 293
372 U. S. 318
Brown v. Allen, 344 U. S. 443
344 U. S.
-507 (opinion of Frankfurter, J.).
the critical inquiry on review of the
sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction must
be not simply to determine whether the jury was properly
instructed, but to determine whether the record evidence could
reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
] But this
inquiry does not require a court to "ask
Page 443 U. S. 319
itself whether it
believes that the evidence at the
trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Woodby v.
385 U.S. at 385 U. S. 282
(emphasis added). Instead, the relevant question is whether, after
viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the
rational trier of fact could have found
the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
See Johnson v. Louisiana,
406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 362
This familiar standard gives full play to the responsibility of the
trier of fact fairly to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to
weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic
facts to ultimate facts. Once a defendant has been found guilty of
the crime charged, the factfinder's role as weigher of the evidence
is preserved through a legal conclusion that, upon judicial review,
all of the evidence
is to be considered in the light most
favorable to the prosecution. [Footnote 12
] The criterion thus impinges upon "jury"
discretion only to the extent necessary to guarantee the
fundamental protection of due process of law. [Footnote 13
Page 443 U. S. 320
That the Thompson
"no evidence" rule is simply
inadequate to protect against misapplications of the constitutional
standard of reasonable doubt is readily apparent. " [A] mere
modicum of evidence may satisfy a no evidence' standard. . . ."
Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U. S. 184,
378 U. S. 202
(Warren, C.J., dissenting). Any evidence that is relevant -- that
has any tendency to make the existence of an element of a crime
slightly more probable than it would be without the evidence,
cf. Fed.Rule Evid. 401 -- could be deemed a "mere
modicum." But it could not seriously be argued that such a
"modicum" of evidence could, by itself, rationally support a
conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. The Thompson
doctrine simply fails to supply a workable or even a predictable
standard for determining whether the due process command of
Winship has been honored. [Footnote 14]
Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, a federal court must entertain a claim
by a state prisoner that he or she is being held in "custody in
violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the
Page 443 U. S. 321
United States." Under the Winship
decision, it is clear
that a state prisoner who alleges that the evidence in support of
his state conviction cannot be fairly characterized as sufficient
to have led a rational trier of fact to find guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt has stated a federal constitutional claim. Thus,
assuming that state remedies have been exhausted, see
U.S.C. § 2254(b), and that no independent and adequate state ground
stands as a bar, see Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.
; Francis v. Henderson, 425 U.
; Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U. S.
; Fay v. Noia, 372 U.
, 372 U. S. 438
it follows that such a claim is cognizable in a federal habeas
corpus proceeding. The respondents have argued, nonetheless, that a
challenge to the constitutional sufficiency of the evidence should
not be entertained by a federal district court under 28 U.S.C. §
In addition to the argument that a Winship
invites replication of state criminal trials in the guise of § 2254
proceedings -- an argument that simply fails to recognize that
courts can and regularly do gauge the sufficiency of the evidence
without intruding into any legitimate domain of the trier of fact
-- the respondents have urged that any departure from the
test in federal habeas corpus proceedings will
expand the number of meritless claims brought to the federal
courts, will duplicate the work of the state appellate courts, will
disserve the societal interest in the finality of state criminal
proceedings, and will increase friction between the federal and
state judiciaries. In sum, counsel for the State urges that this
type of constitutional claim should be deemed to fall within the
limit on federal habeas corpus jurisdiction identified in Stone
v. Powell, 428 U. S. 465
with respect to Fourth Amendment claims. We disagree.
First, the burden that is likely to follow from acceptance of
standard has, we think, been exaggerated.
Federal court challenges to the evidentiary support for state
convictions have, since Thompson,
been dealt with under §
2254. E.g., Freeman v. Stone,
444 F.2d 113 (CA9);
Page 443 U. S. 322
533 F.2d 713 (CA1); Williams v.
414 F.2d 776 (CA4). A more stringent standard will
expand the contours of this type of claim, but will not create an
entirely new class of cases cognizable on federal habeas corpus.
Furthermore, most meritorious challenges to constitutional
sufficiency of the evidence undoubtedly will be recognized in the
state courts, and, if the state courts have fully considered the
issue of sufficiency, the task of a federal habeas court should not
be difficult. Cf. Brown v. Allen,
344 U.S. at 344 U. S. 463
] And this type
of claim can almost always be judged on the written record, without
need for an evidentiary hearing in the federal court.
Second, the problems of finality and federal-state comity arise
whenever a state prisoner invokes the jurisdiction of a federal
court to redress an alleged constitutional violation. A challenge
to a state conviction brought on the ground that the evidence
cannot fairly be deemed sufficient to have established guilt beyond
a reasonable doubt states a federal constitutional claim. Although
state appellate review undoubtedly will serve in the vast majority
of cases to vindicate the due process protection that follows from
the same could also be said of the vast majority
of other federal constitutional rights that may be implicated in a
state criminal trial. It is the occasional abuse that the federal
writ of habeas corpus stands ready to correct. Brown v. Allen,
at 344 U. S.
-501 (opinion of Frankfurter, J.).
Page 443 U. S. 323
The respondents have argued nonetheless that, whenever a person
convicted in a state court has been given a "full and fair hearing"
in the state system -- meaning in this instance state appellate
review of the sufficiency of the evidence -- further federal
inquiry -- apart from the possibility of discretionary review by
this Court -- should be foreclosed. This argument would prove far
too much. A judgment by a state appellate court rejecting a
challenge to evidentiary sufficiency is, of course, entitled to
deference by the federal courts, as is any judgment affirming a
criminal conviction. But Congress, in § 2254, has selected the
federal district courts as precisely the forums that are
responsible for determining whether state convictions have been
secured in accord with federal constitutional law. The federal
habeas corpus statute presumes the norm of a fair trial in the
state court and adequate state postconviction remedies to redress
possible error. See
28 U.S.C. §§ 2254(b), (d). What it
does not presume is that these state proceedings will always be
without error in the constitutional sense. The duty of a federal
habeas corpus court to appraise a claim that constitutional error
did occur -- reflecting as it does the belief that the "finality"
of a deprivation of liberty through the invocation of the criminal
sanction is simply not to be achieved at the expense of a
constitutional right is not one that can be so lightly abjured.
The constitutional issue presented in this case is far different
from the kind of issue that was the subject of the Court's decision
in Stone v. Powell, supra.
The question whether a
defendant has been convicted upon inadequate evidence is central to
the basic question of guilt or innocence. The constitutional
necessity of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not confined to
those defendants who are morally blameless. E.g., Mullaney v.
421 U.S. at 421 U. S.
-698 (requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt
is not "limit[ed] to those facts which, if not proved, would wholly
exonerate" the accused). Under our system of criminal justice, even
Page 443 U. S. 324
is entitled to complain that he has been unconstitutionally
convicted and imprisoned as a burglar.
We hold that, in a challenge to a state criminal conviction
brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 -- if the settled procedural
prerequisites for such a claim have otherwise been satisfied -- the
applicant is entitled to habeas corpus relief if it is found that,
upon the record evidence adduced at the trial, no rational trier of
fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Turning finally to the specific facts of this case, we reject
the petitioner's claim that, under the constitutional standard
dictated by Winship,
his conviction of first-degree murder
cannot stand. A review of the record in the light most favorable to
the prosecution convinces us that a rational factfinder could
readily have found the petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt
of first-degree murder under Virginia law.
There was no question at the trial that the petitioner had
fatally shot Mary Cole. The crucial factual dispute went to the
sufficiency of the evidence to support a finding that he had
specifically intended to kill her. This question, as the Court of
Appeals recognized, must be gauged in the light of applicable
Virginia law defining the element of premeditation. Under that law,
it is well settled that premeditation need not exist for any
particular length of time, and that an intent to kill may be formed
at the moment of the commission of the unlawful act.
Commonwealth v. Brown,
90 Va. 671, 19 S.E. 447. From the
circumstantial evidence in the record, it is
Page 443 U. S. 325
clear that the trial judge could reasonably have found beyond a
reasonable doubt that the petitioner did possess the necessary
intent at or before the time of the killing.
The prosecution's uncontradicted evidence established that the
petitioner shot the victim not once, but twice. The petitioner
himself admitted that the fatal shooting had occurred only after he
had first fired several shots into the ground and then reloaded his
gun. The evidence was clear that the two shots that killed the
victim were fired at close, and thus predictably fatal, range by a
person who was experienced in the use of the murder weapon.
Immediately after the shooting, the petitioner drove without mishap
from Virginia to North Carolina, a fact quite at odds with his
story of extreme intoxication. Shortly before the fatal episode, he
had publicly expressed an intention to have sexual relations with
the victim. Her body was found partially unclothed. From these
uncontradicted circumstances, a rational factfinder readily could
have inferred beyond a reasonable doubt that the petitioner,
notwithstanding evidence that he had been drinking on the day of
the killing, did have the capacity to form and had in fact formed
an intent to kill the victim.
The petitioner's calculated behavior both before and after the
killing demonstrated that he was fully capable of committing
premeditated murder. His claim of self-defense would have required
the trial judge to draw a series of improbable inferences from the
basic facts, prime among them the inference that he was wholly
uninterested in sexual activity with the victim, but that she was
so interested as to have willingly removed part of her clothing and
then attacked him with a knife when he resisted her advances, even
though he was armed with a loaded revolver that he had just
demonstrated he knew how to use. It is evident from the record that
the trial judge found this story, including the petitioner's
belated contention that he had been so intoxicated as to be
incapable of premeditation, incredible.
Page 443 U. S. 326
Only under a theory that the prosecution was under an
affirmative duty to rule out every hypothesis except that of guilt
beyond a reasonable doubt could this petitioner's challenge be
sustained. That theory the Court has rejected in the past.
Holland v. United States, 348 U.
, 348 U. S. 140
We decline to adopt it today. Under the standard established in
this opinion as necessary to preserve the due process protection
recognized in Winship,
a federal habeas corpus court faced
with a record of historical facts that supports conflicting
inferences must presume -- even if it does not affirmatively appear
in the record -- that the trier of fact resolved any such conflicts
in favor of the prosecution, and must defer to that resolution.
Applying these criteria, we hold that a rational trier of fact
could reasonably have found that the petitioner committed murder in
the first degree under Virginia law.
For these reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE POWELL took no part in the consideration or decision
of this case.
The degrees of murder in Virginia are specified in Va.Code §
18.2-32 (1975) as follows:
"Murder, other than capital murder, by poison, lying in wait,
imprisonment, starving, or by any willful, deliberate, and
premeditated killing, or in the commission of, or attempt to
commit, arson, rape, robbery, burglary or abduction . . . is murder
of the first degree, punishable as a Class 2 felony."
"All murder other than capital murder and murder in the first
degree is murder of the second degree and is punishable as a Class
Class 2 felonies carry a term of 20 years to life. § 18.2-10(b)
(1975). The sentence for Class 3 felonies can range from 5 to 20
years, § 18.2-10(c). Murder itself takes its definition in Virginia
from the common law. Stapleton v. Commonwealth,
825, 96 S.E. 801.
Under Virginia law, voluntary intoxication -- although not an
affirmative defense to second-degree murder -- is material to the
element of premeditation, and may be found to have negated it.
Hatcher v. Commonwealth,
218 Va. 811, 241 S.E.2d
When trial without a jury is had on a not guilty plea in
Virginia, the court is to "have and exercise all the powers,
privileges and duties given to juries. . . ." Va.Code § 19.2-257
There is no appeal as of right from a criminal conviction in
Virginia. Saunders v. Reynolds,
214 Va. 697, 204 S.E.2d
421. Each petition for writ of error under Va.Code § 19.2-317
(1975) is reviewed on the merits, however, and the effect of a
denial is to affirm the judgment of conviction on the merits.
Saunders v. Reynolds, supra.
The petition for writ of error alleged that
"the trial Court erred in finding the Petitioner guilty of
first-degree murder in light of the evidence introduced on behalf
of the Commonwealth, and on unwarranted inferences drawn from this
The petitioner contended that an affirmance would violate the
Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In its order
denying Jackson's petition, the Virginia Supreme Court stated it
was "of [the] opinion that there is no reversible error in the
judgment complained of. . . ." Virginia law requires sufficiency
claims to be raised on direct appeal; such a claim may not be
raised in a state habeas corpus proceeding. Pettus v.
207 Va. 906, 153 S.E.2d 278.
The District Court correctly found that the petitioner had
exhausted his state remedies on this issue. See n
The opinions of the District Court and the Court of Appeals are
not reported. The Court of Appeals' judgment order is reported at
580 F.2d 1048.
The Court of Appeals in the present case, of course, recognized
may have changed the constitutional standard
in federal habeas corpus. And the Court of Appeals for the Sixth
Circuit recently recognized the possible impact of Winship
on federal habeas corpus in a case in which it held that "a
rational trier of fact could have found the defendant . . . guilty
beyond a reasonable doubt." Spruytte v. Koehler, affirmance
590 F.2d 335. An even more recent case in that court
provoked a lively debate among three of its members regarding the
effect of Winship
upon federal habeas corpus. The writ was
granted in that case, even though the trial record concededly
contained "some evidence" of the applicant's guilt. See
Speigner v. Jago,
603 F.2d 1208.
The trier of fact in this case was a judge, and not a jury. But
this is of no constitutional significance. The record makes clear
that the judge deemed himself "properly instructed."
A "reasonable doubt" has often been described as one "based on
reason which arises from the evidence or lack of evidence."
Johnson v. Louisiana, 406 U. S. 356
406 U. S. 360
(citing cases). For a discussion of variations in the definition
used in jury instructions, see Holland v. United States,
348 U. S. 121
348 U. S. 140
(rejecting contention that circumstantial evidence must exclude
every hypothesis but that of guilt).
This, of course, does not mean that convictions are frequently
reversed upon this ground. The practice in the federal courts of
entertaining properly preserved challenges to evidentiary
Fed.Rule Crim.Proc. 29, serves only to
highlight the traditional understanding in our system that the
application of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard to the
evidence is not irretrievably committed to jury discretion. To be
sure, the factfinder in a criminal case has traditionally been
permitted to enter an unassailable but unreasonable verdict of "not
guilty." This is the logical corollary of the rule that there can
be no appeal from a judgment of acquittal, even if the evidence of
guilt is overwhelming. The power of the factfinder to err upon the
side of mercy, however, has never been thought to include a power
to enter an unreasonable verdict of guilty. Carpenters &
Joiners v. United States, 330 U. S. 395
330 U. S. 408
Cf. Capital Traction Co. v. Hof, 174 U. S.
, 174 U. S. 13
Any such premise is wholly belied by the settled practice of
testing evidentiary sufficiency through a motion for judgment of
acquittal and a post-verdict appeal from the denial of such a
motion. See generally
4 L. Orfield, Criminal Procedure
Under the Federal Rules §§ 29:1-29:29 (1967 and Supp. 1978).
Until 1972, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit took the
position advanced today by the opinion concurring in the judgment
that the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard is merely descriptive
of the state of mind required of the factfinder in a criminal case,
and not of the actual quantum and quality of proof necessary to
support a criminal conviction. Thus, that court held that, in a
jury trial, the judge need not distinguish between criminal and
civil cases for the purpose of ruling on a motion for judgment of
acquittal. United States v. Feinberg,
140 F.2d 592, 594.
In United States v. Taylor,
464 F.2d 240 (CA2),
was overruled, partly on the strength of
court adopted the directed
verdict criterion articulated in Curley v. United States,
81 U.S.App.D.C. 389, 392-393, 160 F.2d 229, 232-233 (If
"reasonable" jurors "must necessarily have . . . a reasonable
doubt" as to guilt, the judge "must require acquittal, because no
other result is permissible within the fixed bounds of jury
consideration"). This is now the prevailing criterion for judging
motions for acquittal in federal criminal trials. See
2 C. Wright, Federal Practice and Procedure § 467
(1969 and Supp. 1978).
Contrary to the suggestion in the opinion concurring in the
judgment, the criterion announced today as the constitutional
minimum required to enforce the due process right established in
is not novel. See, e.g., United States v.
495 F.2d 545, 549 (CA5) ("whether, taking the view [of
the evidence] most favorable to the Government, a reasonably
could accept the relevant evidence as adequate and
sufficient to support the conclusion of the defendant's guilt
beyond a reasonable doubt") (emphasis added); United States v.
451 F.2d 516, 521 (CA10) (whether, "considering the
evidence in the light most favorable to the government, there is
substantial evidence from which a jury might reasonably
that an accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt")
(emphasis added). Glasser v. United States, 315 U. S.
, 315 U. S. 80
has universally been understood as a case applying this criterion.
See, e.g., Harding v. United States,
337 F.2d 254, 256
(CA8). See generally
4 Orfield, supra, n
10, § 29.28.
The question whether the evidence is constitutionally sufficient
is, of course, wholly unrelated to the question of how rationally
the verdict was actually reached. Just as the standard announced
today does not permit a court to make its own subjective
determination of guilt or innocence, it does not require scrutiny
of the reasoning process actually used by the factfinder -- if
known. See generally
3 F. Wharton, Criminal Procedure §
520 (12th ed.1975 and Supp. 1978).
Application of the Thompson
standard to assess the
validity of a criminal conviction after Winship
to absurdly unjust results. Our cases have indicated that failure
to instruct a jury on the necessity of proof of guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt can never be harmless error. See Cool v.
United States, 409 U. S. 100
Cf. Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U. S. 478
Thus, a defendant whose guilt was actually proved by overwhelming
evidence would be denied due process if the jury was instructed
that he could be found guilty on a mere preponderance of the
evidence. Yet a defendant against whom there was but one slender
bit of evidence would not be denied due process so long as the jury
has been properly instructed on the prosecution's burden of proof
beyond a reasonable doubt. Such results would be wholly faithless
to the constitutional rationale of Winship.
The Virginia Supreme Court's order denying Jackson's petition
for writ of error does not make clear what criterion was applied to
the petitioner's claim that the evidence in support of his
first-degree murder conviction was insufficient. See
argument, counsel for the petitioner contended that the Virginia
sufficiency standard is not keyed to Winship.
the State disagreed. Under these circumstances, we decline to
speculate as to the criterion that the state court applied. The
fact that a state appellate court invoked the proper standard,
however, although entitled to great weight, does not totally bar a
properly presented claim of this type under § 2254.
The respondents have suggested that this constitutional standard
will invite intrusions upon the power of the States to define
criminal offenses. Quite to the contrary, the standard must be
applied with explicit reference to the substantive elements of the
criminal offense as defined by state law. Whether the State could
constitutionally make the conduct at issue criminal at all is, of
course, a distinct question. See Papachristou v.
Jacksonville, 405 U. S. 156
Robinson v. California, 370 U. S. 660
MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE
REHNQUIST join, concurring in the judgment.
The Constitution prohibits the criminal conviction of any person
except upon proof sufficient to convince the trier of fact
of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Cf. ante
443 U. S. 309
This rule has prevailed in our courts "at least from our early
years as a Nation." In re Winship, 397 U.
, 397 U. S.
Today the Court creates a new rule of law -- one that has never
prevailed in our jurisprudence. According to the Court, the
Constitution now prohibits the criminal conviction of any person --
including, apparently, a person against whom the facts have already
been found beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury, a trial judge, and
one or more levels of state appellate judges -- except upon proof
sufficient to convince a federal
Page 443 U. S. 327
that a "rational trier of fact could have found
the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."
at 443 U. S.
The adoption of this novel constitutional rule is not necessary
to the decision of this case. Moreover, I believe it is an unwise
act of lawmaking. Despite its chimerical appeal as a new
counterpart to the venerable principle recognized in
I am persuaded that its precipitous adoption will
adversely affect the quality of justice administered by federal
judges. For that reason, I shall analyze this new brainchild with
I shall begin by explaining why neither the record in this case
nor general experience with challenges to the sufficiency of the
evidence supporting criminal convictions supports, much less
compels, the conclusion that there is any
need for this
new constitutional precept. I shall next show that it is not
logically compelled by either the holding or the analysis in In
re Winship, supra.
Finally, I shall try to demonstrate why the
Court's new rule -- if it is not just a meaningless shibboleth --
threatens serious harm to the quality of our judicial system.
It is, of course, part of this Court's tradition that new rules
of law emerge from the process of case-by-case adjudication of
constitutional issues. Widespread concern that existing
constitutional doctrine is unjust often provides the occasion, and
is sometimes even relied upon as a justification, for the exercise
of such lawmaking authority by the Court. Without entering the
debate over the legitimacy of this justification for judicial
action, it is at least certain that it should not be the basis for
dramatic -- indeed, for any
-- constitutional lawmaking
efforts unless (1) those efforts are necessary to the decision of
the case at hand and (2) powerful reasons favor a change in the
law. See Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.
, 297 U. S.
-348 (Brandeis, J., concurring).
Page 443 U. S. 328
In this case, the Court's analysis fails on both counts. It has
accordingly formulated a new constitutional principle under the
most dangerous possible circumstances -- i.e.,
exercise of judicial authority is neither necessitated nor capable
of being limited by "the precise facts to which [the rule is
originally] to be applied," Liverpool, N.Y. & P. S.S. Co.
v. Emigration Comm'rs, 113 U. S. 33
113 U. S. 39
nor even by some broader set of identifiable experiences with the
evil supposedly involved.
Most significantly, the Court has announced its new
constitutional edict in a case in which it has absolutely no
bearing on the outcome. The only factual issue at stake is whether
petitioner intended to kill his victim. If the evidence is viewed
"in the light most favorable to the prosecution," ante, at
443 U. S. 319
-- and, indeed, we may view it through the eyes of the actual
factfinder, whose observations about the evidence are recorded in
the trial transcript -- there can be only one answer to that
question no matter what
standard of appellate review is
applied. In 443 U. S.
Court accepts this conclusion. There is, therefore, no need to
fashion a broad new rule of constitutional law to dispose of this
squalid but rather routine murder case. Under any view, the
evidence is sufficient.
The Court's new rule is adopted simply to forestall some
hypothetical evil that has not been demonstrated and, in my view,
is not fairly demonstrable. Although the Judiciary has received its
share of criticism -- principally because of the delays and costs
associated with litigation -- I am aware of no general
dissatisfaction with the accuracy of the factfinding process or the
adequacy of the rules applied by state appellate courts when
reviewing claims of insufficiency.
What little evidence the Court marshals in favor of a contrary
conclusion is unconvincing. See ante
at 443 U. S.
-318 n. 10. The Court is simply incorrect in implying
that there are a significant number of occasions when federal
Page 443 U. S. 329
overturned on appeal because no rational trier of fact could
have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The two opinions of
this Court cited ante
at 443 U. S. 317
stand for no such proposition. In neither was a conviction reversed
for insufficiency. See Glasser v. United States,
315 U. S. 60
Bronston v. United States, 409 U.
Moreover, a study of the 127 federal criminal convictions that
were reviewed by the various Courts of Appeals and reported in the
most recent hardbound volume of the Federal Reporter, Second
Series, Volume 589, reveals that only 3 were overturned on
sufficiency grounds. And of those, one was overturned under a "no
evidence" standard, while the other two, in which a total of only 3
out of 36 counts were actually reversed, arguably involved legal
issues masquerading as sufficiency questions. [Footnote 2/1
] It is difficult to believe that the
federal courts will turn up more sufficiency problems than this on
habeas review when, instead of acting as the first level of
Page 443 U. S. 330
review, as in the cases studied, they will be acting as the
second, third, or even fourth level of appellate review. In short,
there is simply no reason to tinker with an elaborate mechanism
that is now functioning well.
There is nothing in the facts of this case or, so far as the
Court has demonstrated, in those of cases like it to warrant
today's excursion into constitutional rulemaking. The Court instead
portrays its rule as the logical corollary of the principle
recognized in Winship
regarding the subjective state of
mind that persons charged with the responsibility of evaluating the
credibility of evidence must possess before they find the defendant
guilty in a criminal case. But an examination of Winship
reveals that it has nothing to do with appellate, much less habeas
corpus, review standards; that the reasoning used in that case to
reach its conclusion with respect to the trier of fact does not
support, and indeed counsels against, the Court's conclusion with
respect to federal habeas judges; and that there is no necessary
connection between the rule recognized in Winship
rule invented by the Court today.
In distinct contrast to the circumstances of this case, the
facts of Winship
"a case where the choice of the standard of proof has made a
difference: the [trial] judge below forthrightly acknowledged that
he believed by a preponderance of the evidence [in], but was not
convinced beyond a reasonable doubt"
of, the juvenile's guilt. 397 U.S. at 397 U. S. 369
(Harlan, J., concurring). Because the trier of fact entertained
such a doubt, this Court held that the juvenile was
constitutionally entitled to the same verdict that an adult
defendant in a criminal case would receive. In so holding, the
Court merely extended to juveniles a protection that had
traditionally been available to defendants in criminal trials in
this Nation. Id.
at 397 U. S.
But nothing in the Winship
opinion suggests that it
Page 443 U. S. 331
bore on appellate or habeas corpus procedures. Although it
repeatedly emphasized the function of the reasonable doubt standard
as describing the requisite "subjective state of certitude" of the
] it never mentioned the question of how appellate judges
are to know whether the trier of fact really was convinced beyond a
reasonable doubt, or, indeed, whether the factfinder was a
"rational" person or group of persons.
Moreover, the mode of analysis employed in Winship
finds no counterpart in the Court's opinion in this case. For
example, in Winship,
the Court pointed out the breadth of
both the historical and the current acceptance of the reasonable
standard. [Footnote 2/3
] In this case, by contrast, the Court
Page 443 U. S. 332
candidly recognizes that the Federal Courts of Appeals have
the habeas standard that it adopts
at 443 U. S. 316
court relied on nine prior opinions of this
Court that bore directly on the issue presented. 397 U.S. at
397 U. S. 362
Here, the Court purportedly relies on two prior decisions, but as
is pointed out supra
at 443 U. S. 329
neither of these cases itself applied a "reasonable doubt"
appellate standard to overturn a conviction, neither purported to
be interpreting the Constitution, and neither expressed any view
whatsoever on the appropriate standard in collateral proceedings
such as are involved in this case. [Footnote 2/5
] As the Court itself notes, we have instead
repeatedly endorsed the "no evidence" test, and have continued to
do so after Winship
was decided. Vachon
Page 443 U. S. 333
New Hampshire, 414 U. S. 478
Douglas v. Buder, 412 U. S. 430
Gregory v. Chicago, 394 U. S. 111
Adderley v. Florida, 385 U. S. 39
Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U. S. 199
See also Clyatt v. United States, 197 U.
, 197 U. S.
The primary reasoning of the Court in Winship
inapplicable here. The Court noted in that case that the reasonable
doubt standard has the desirable effect of significantly reducing
the risk of an inaccurate factfinding, and thus of erroneous
convictions, as well as of instilling confidence in the criminal
justice system. 397 U.S. at 397 U. S.
-364. See also id.
at 397 U. S.
-372 (Harlan, J., concurring). In this case, however,
it would be impossible (and the Court does not even try) to
demonstrate that there is an appreciable risk that a factfinding
made by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, and twice reviewed by a
trial judge in ruling on directed verdict and post-trial acquittal
motions and by one or more levels of appellate courts on direct
appeal, as well as by two federal habeas courts under the
"no evidence" rule, is likely to be erroneous.
] Indeed, the very
premise of Winship
is that properly selected judges and
properly instructed juries act rationally, that the former will
tell the truth when they declare that they are convinced beyond a
reasonable doubt, and the latter will conscientiously obey and
understand the reasonable doubt instructions they receive before
retiring to reach a verdict, and therefore that either factfinder
will itself provide the necessary bulwark against erroneous factual
determinations. To presume otherwise is to make light of
Page 443 U. S. 334
Having failed to identify the evil against which the rule is
directed, and having failed to demonstrate how it follows from the
analysis typically used in due process cases of this character, the
Court places all of its reliance on a dry, and in my view
incorrect, syllogism: if Winship
requires the factfinder
to apply a reasonable doubt standard, then logic requires a
reviewing judge to apply a like standard.
But, taken to its ultimate conclusion, this "logic" would
require the reviewing court to "ask itself whether it
believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt." Woodby v. INS, 385 U.
, 385 U. S. 282
(emphasis added). The Court, however, rejects this standard, as
well as others that might be considered consistent with
For example, it does not require the reviewing
court to view just the evidence most favorable to the prosecution,
and then to decide whether that evidence convinced it beyond a
reasonable doubt, nor whether, based on the entire record, rational
triers of fact could be convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable
doubt. Instead, and without explanation, it chooses a still
narrower standard that merely asks whether,
"after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the
rational trier of fact could have found
the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."
at 443 U. S. 319
] It seems to me that,
if "logic" allows
Page 443 U. S. 335
this choice after Winship,
it should also allow the
presumption that the Court has rejected -- that trial judges and
juries will act rationally and honestly in applying the reasonable
doubt standard, at least so long as the trial is free of procedural
error and the record contains evidence tending to prove each of the
elements of the offense.
Time may prove that the rule the Court has adopted today is the
wisest compromise between one extreme that maximizes the protection
against the risk that innocent persons will be erroneously
convicted and the other extreme that places the greatest faith in
the ability of fair procedures to produce just verdicts. But the
Court's opinion should not obscure the fact that its new rule is
not logically compelled by the analysis or the holding in
or in any other precedent, or the fact that the
rule reflects a new policy choice, rather than the application of a
preexisting rule of law.
The Court cautions against exaggerating the significance of its
new rule. Ante
443 U. S. 321
. It is true that, in practice, there may
be little or no difference between a record that does not contain
at least some evidence tending to prove every element of an offense
and a record containing so little evidence that no rational
factfinder could be persuaded of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Moreover, I think the Court is quite correct when it acknowledges
that "most meritorious challenges to constitutional sufficiency of
the evidence undoubtedly will be recognized in the state courts."
at 443 U. S. 322
But this only means that the new rule will seldom, if ever, provide
a convicted state prisoner with any tangible benefits. It does not
mean that the rule will have no impact on the administration of
justice. On the contrary, I am persuaded that it will be seriously
harmful both to the state and federal judiciaries.
Page 443 U. S. 336
The Court indicates that the new standard to be applied by
federal judges in habeas corpus proceedings may be substantially
the same as the standard most state reviewing courts are already
443 U. S. 322
. The federal district courts are therefore
being directed simply to duplicate the reviewing function that is
now being performed adequately by state appellate courts. In my
view, this task may well be inconsistent with the prohibition --
added by Congress to the federal habeas statute in order to
forestall undue federal interference with state proceedings,
see Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U. S. 72
433 U. S. 80
against overturning "a determination after a hearing on the merits
of a factual issue, made by a State court of competent
jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. 2254(d). See LaVallee v. Delle
Rose, 410 U. S. 690
any case, to assign a single federal district judge the
responsibility of directly reviewing, and inevitably supervising,
the most routine work of the highest courts of a State can only
undermine the morale and the esteem of the state judiciary --
particularly when the stated purpose of the additional layer of
review is to determine whether the State's factfinder is
"rational." [Footnote 2/9
consequences are intangible, but nonetheless significant.
Page 443 U. S. 337
The potential effect on federal judges is even more serious.
Their burdens are already so heavy that they are delegating to
staff assistants more and more work that we once expected judges to
perform. [Footnote 2/10
] The new
standard will invite an unknown number of state prisoners to make
sufficiency challenges that they would not have made under the old
rule. Moreover, because the "rational trier of fact" must certainly
base its decisions on all of the evidence, the Court's broader
standard may well require that the entire transcript of the state
trial be read whenever the factfinders' rationality is challenged
under the Court's rule. [Footnote
] Because this task will confront the courts of appeals as
well as district courts, it will surely impose countless additional
hours of unproductive labor on federal judges and their assistants.
] The increasing
Page 443 U. S. 338
of work of this character has already led some of our most
distinguished lawyers to discontinue or reject service on the
federal bench. [Footnote 2/13
The addition of a significant volume
Page 443 U. S. 339
of pointless labor can only impair the quality of justice
administered by federal judges, and thereby undermine "the respect
and confidence of the community in applications of the . . . law."
In re Winship,
397 U.S. at 397 U. S.
For these reasons, I am unable to join the Court's gratuitous
directive to our colleagues on the federal bench.
In United States v. Tarr,
589 F.2d 55 (CA1 1978), the
court overturned one of two counts of which appellant was convicted
because there was insufficient evidence to prove that he had the
intent to aid and abet the unauthorized transfer of a machinegun in
violation of 26 U.S.C. § 5861(e) and 18 U.S.C. § 2. The court found
"no evidence" that appellant had the requisite knowledge. 589 F.2d
In United States v. Whetzel,
191 U.S.App.D.C. 184, 589
F.2d 707 (1978), the court overturned 2 of the 35 counts of
appellant's conviction because
"the Government failed to offer proof that would permit a jury
to reasonably infer that the merchandise [appellant] transported
had a value of $5,000."
at 188, 589 F.2d at 711. However, the basis for
this determination was that the Government's valuation method,
which the trial court allowed the jury to consider, was legally
erroneous. Similarly, in United States v. Fearn,
1316 (CA7 1978), the court overturned the conviction based on a
federal nonconstitutional rule, which surely would not apply in
habeas review of state convictions, "that a conviction must rest
upon firmer ground than the uncorroborated admission or confession
of the accused." Id.
at 1321. The court did not
independently analyze whether the uncorroborated confession
involved in that case could itself have allowed a rational trier of
fact to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
In In re Winship,
397 U.S. at 397 U. S. 364
the Court stated:
"As we said in Speiser v. Randall,
,] 357 U. S. 525
"There is always in litigation a margin of error, representing
error in factfinding, which both parties must take into account.
Where one party has at stake an interest of transcending value --
as a criminal defendant his liberty -- this margin of error is
reduced as to him by the process of placing on the other party the
burden of . . . persuading the factfinder
conclusion of the trial of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Due
process commands that no man shall lose his liberty unless the
Government has borne the burden of . . . convincing the
of his guilt."
"To this end, the reasonable doubt standard is indispensable,
for it 'impresses on the trier of fact the necessity of
reaching a subjective state of certitude of the facts in
' Dorsen & Rezneck, In Re Gault
Future of Juvenile Law, 1 Family Law Quarterly, No. 4, pp. 1, 26
Later on the same page, the Court added:
"It is also important in our free society that every individual
going about his ordinary affairs have confidence that his
government cannot adjudge him guilty of a criminal offense
without convincing a proper factfinder of his guilt with utmost
(emphasis added). See also id.
397 U. S. 370
(Harlan, J., concurring) ("[A] standard of proof represents an
attempt to instruct the factfinder concerning the degree of
confidence our society thinks he should have in the correctness of
for a particular type of adjudication")
The Court, relying on treatises that analyzed the law in all 50
States as well as in the federal system, determined both that the
reasonable doubt standard has prevailed at the trial
"at least from our early years as a Nation," and that it
"is now accepted in common law jurisdictions as the measure of
persuasion by which the prosecution must convince the
of all the essential elements of guilt."
at 397 U. S. 361
(emphasis added). See also id.
at 397 U. S. 372
(Harlan, J., concurring) ("It is only because of the nearly
complete and longstanding acceptance of the reasonable doubt
standard by the States in criminal trials
that the Court
has not before today had to hold explicitly that due process, as an
expression of fundamental procedural fairness, requires a more
stringent standard for criminal trials than for ordinary civil
litigation") (emphasis added).
The Court has undertaken no systematic analysis of the standards
for reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence that prevail either
in state habeas corpus and other collateral proceedings or in state
appellate courts. What sources I have discovered suggest that
"varied standards" are in use, and that each is "subject to
shifting and elastic definitions." Winningham, The Dilemma of the
Directed Acquittal, 15 Vand.L.Rev. 699, 705-706 (1962).
ALI Code of Criminal Procedure, Commentary on § 321,
pp. 961-962 (1930); Rules of Criminal Procedure 481(c), 522(a) and
commentary, 10 U.L.A. (1974).
It hardly bears repeating that habeas corpus is not intended as
a substitute for appeal, nor as a device for reviewing the merits
of guilt determinations at criminal trials. See generally Stone
v. Powell, 428 U. S. 465
Instead, it is designed to guard against extreme malfunctions in
the state criminal justice systems.
As I discuss earlier, see supra
at 443 U. S. 329
the incidence of factual error at the trial level in federal courts
appears to be exceedingly low, even when measured by the relatively
strict appellate standard used by the Federal Courts of Appeals.
Presumably the incidence of errors that survive that first level of
review is even smaller.
Indeed, the Court makes light of Winship
that, in the absence of its new habeas procedure, the result of
that case is simply "a trial ritual." Ante
at 443 U. S.
-317. Far more likely, in my view, is that the
Court's difficult-to-apply but largely unnecessary rule will itself
result in a "collateral-attack ritual" that will undermine the
integrity of both the state and federal judiciaries. See
at 443 U. S.
So far as I can determine, this standard first appeared in our
jurisprudence in MR. JUSTICE STEWART's opinion dissenting from the
Court's denial of certiorari in Freeman v. Zahradnick,
U.S. 1111, 1112, 1113, 1114, 1116. At that time, it gave the
impression of being somewhat narrower than -- if only because it
was stated quite differently from -- the test used by the Courts of
Appeals in reviewing federal convictions on direct appeal. See
Curley v. United States,
81 U.S.App.D.C. 389, 392393, 160 F.2d
229, 232-233 (1947). Although the Court twice repeats the
test, see ante
at 443 U. S. 313
443 U. S. 319
it now appears either to equate that standard with the -- in my
view -- broader federal direct review standard, or to endorse both
standards despite their differences. See ante
443 U. S. 318
and nn. 443
In the past, collateral review of state proceedings has been
justified largely on the grounds (1) that federal judges have
special expertise in the federal issues that regularly arise in
habeas corpus proceeding, and (2) that they are less susceptible
than state judges to political pressures against applying
constitutional rules to overturn convictions. See, e.g.,
Bartels, Avoiding a Comity of Errors, 29 Stan.L.Rev. 27, 30 n. 9
(1976). Cf. Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.
, 415 U. S. 464
Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U. S. 225
407 U. S. 242
But neither of these justifications has any force in the present
context. State judges are more familiar with the elements of state
offenses than are federal judges, and should be better able to
evaluate sufficiency claims. Moreover, of all decisions overturning
convictions, the least likely to be unpopular, and thus to distort
state decisionmaking processes, are ones based on the inadequacy of
the evidence. Indeed, once federal courts were divested of
authority to second-guess state courts on Fourth Amendment issues,
which are far more likely to generate politically motivated state
court decisions, see Stone v. Powell, 428 U.
, a like result in this case would seem to be
For example, the heavy federal workload has required the 13
regular and 7 senior judges on the Ninth Circuit to hire 30 staff
attorneys and 33 law clerks to assist them in their labors.
Additional burdens will also be imposed if the Court's rule is
extended to federal habeas proceedings reviewing federal criminal
trials, as well as to ones reviewing state civil commitment
proceedings in which we have recently required at least the "clear
and convincing" test to be applied as a matter of federal
constitutional law. Addington v. Texas, 441 U.
This Court's workload will also increase, of course, when its
certiorari docket expands to accommodate the challenges generated
by the Court's new rule. The effect will be even greater if the
Court's opinion is read to require state appellate courts to apply
the reasonable doubt test on direct review and to require this
Court to apply it when reviewing the decisions of those courts on
Professor Bator has persuasively explained how the law of
diminishing returns inevitably makes it unwise to have duplicative
review processes on the "merits" in criminal cases:
a criminal judgment is ever to be final, the
notion of legality must at some point include the assignment of
final competences to determine legality. But, it may be asked, why
should we seek a point at which such a judgment becomes final?
Conceding that no process can assure ultimate truth, will not
repetition of inquiry stand a better chance of approximating it? In
view of the awesomeness of the consequences of conviction,
shouldn't we allow redetermination of the merits in an attempt to
make sure that no error has occurred?"
"Surely the answer runs, in the first place, in terms of
conservation of resources -- and I mean not only simple economic
resources, but all of the intellectual, moral, and political
resources involved in the legal system. The presumption must be, it
seems to me, that, if a job can be well done once, it should not be
done twice. If one set of institutions is as capable of performing
the task at hand as another, we should not ask both to do it. The
challenge really runs the other way: if a proceeding is held to
determine the facts and law in a case, and the processes used in
that proceeding are fitted to the task in a manner not inferior to
those which would be used in a second proceeding, so that one
cannot demonstrate that relitigation would not merely consist of
repetition and second-guessing, why should not the first proceeding
'count'? Why should we duplicate effort? After all, it is the very
purpose of the first go-around to decide the case. Neither it nor
any subsequent go-around can assure ultimate truth. If, then, the
previous determination is to be ignored, we must have some reasoned
institutional justification why this should be so."
"Mere iteration of process can do other kinds of damage. I could
imagine nothing more subversive of a judge's sense of
responsibility, of the inner subjective conscientiousness which is
so essential a part of the difficult and subtle art of judging
well, than an indiscriminate acceptance of the notion that all the
shots will always be called by someone else. Of course this does
not mean that we should not have appeals. As we shall see,
important functional and ethical purposes are served by allowing
recourse to an appellate court in a unitary system, and to a
federal supreme court in a federal system. The acute question is
the effect it will have on a trial judge if we then allow still
further recourse where these purposes may no longer be relevant.
What seems so objectionable is second-guessing merely for the sake
of second-guessing, in the service of the illusory notion that, if
we only try hard enough, we will find the 'truth.'"
Bator, Finality in Criminal Law and Federal Habeas Corpus for
State Prisoners, 76 Harv.L.Rev. 441, 450-451 (1963). See
F. James, Civil Procedure 518 (1965).
The testimony of Griffin Bell at his confirmation hearings for
Attorney General is particularly relevant. When asked by Senator
Scott of Virginia why he had earlier resigned from his seat on the
Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Judge Bell responded:
"I found it not to be a rewarding experience any longer. Whether
it was because there was no more excitement after the 1906's, or
whether it was because the case load changed, but the work load was
oppressive. I would not have minded the work load, but the
character of the cases changed. It was almost like serving on a
criminal court. I did not want to do that any longer."
Hearings on the Prospective Nomination of Griffin B. Bell, of
Georgia, to be Attorney General, before the Senate Committee on the
Judiciary, 95th Cong., 1st Sess., 27 (1977).