Release Date: January 11, 2010
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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NINTH CIRCUIT RULING VOIDING RAPE CONVICTION OVERTURNED>

The United States Supreme Court today overturned a 2008 federal appeals court ruling which had improperly voided conviction of a child rapist.  The opinion was issued “per curiam,” meaning that it is the product of the Court as a whole with no individual Justice identified as the author.  At issue in McDaniel v. Brown was a federal court’s decision to brush aside a Nevada Supreme Court affirmance of the conviction. The federal court based its ruling on a re-evaluation of testimonial evidence after excluding DNA testing which identified the defendant as the rapist.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined the case to encourage a decision to overturn the lower federal courts and reinstate Brown’s conviction.

“The federal court of appeals’ decision was so obviously wrong that not a single Justice thought it was right, and the Court did not even need to hear argument.  Yet without the Supreme Court’s intervention that decision would have freed the perpetrator of a horrible crime,”said the Foundation’s Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.  “The court of appeals strayed far beyond the rules that Congress established to limit federal court review of state convictions.  The Supreme Court’s holding today demonstrates why these limits are needed.”

The case involves the conviction of Troy Don Brown for the 1994 sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl.  Evidence introduced at trial indicates that on the evening of the crime, the victim’s mother, Pam, was invited to join Troy Brown’s brother, Trent, and sister-in-law, Raquel, for a drink at C.G.’s, a bar near the Carlin, Nevada, trailer court where Pam and her family lived.  Because Pam’s husband worked the night shift, her oldest daughter, who was nine, was asked to babysit her four-year-old sister and Trent & Raquel’s two children in their home across the street.

After Trent and Raquel returned from the bar, Raquel walked the victim and her sister to their trailer.  When they arrived, the nine-year-old girl tried to telephone her mother at C.G.’s, but the line was busy.  She then called the Peacock Bar, and Troy answered the phone.  After she told Troy that she was home alone with her little sister, he agreed to go to C.G.’s and find Pam.  By the time he got there, Pam and her daughter had already spoken over the phone.  A short time later, Troy and Pam returned to the Peacock Bar and played pool.  Pam later stated that the last time she saw Troy at the bar was between 11:00 p.m. and midnight and that he had been drinking heavily.

Just before 1:00 a.m., Pam received a call at the Peacock Bar from her daughter, who said that a man had hurt her.  Pam quickly returned home to find the girl covered in blood from the waist down.  Doctors later reported that she had been penetrated both vaginally and anally and had lost 15% of her blood.  DNA samples were taken, and the victim talked with a female police officer who specialized in interviewing children.  She described her attacker, identifying a black jacket, dark jeans, and cowboy boots, but after noting that the light was out, made conflicting statements regarding his face and hair. She also said he smelled of beer and vomit.

Following the interview, the victim was hospitalized for 12 days as she underwent extensive surgery for her injuries.  Later that morning, a police officer visited Troy’s trailer and questioned him about the assault.  He denied involvement.  The following week Troy voluntarily went in for additional questioning and, although he again denied involvement, he was arrested.

At trial, the bartender who was on duty at the Peacock Bar at the time of the assault recalled that Troy left no later than 12:20 a.m.  An off-duty bartender who had remained in the bar after her shift ended believed that he left at 1:30 a.m.  Several witnesses, including Brown, stated that he was wearing a black satin jacket, dark jeans, and a cowboy hat.  A couple picking up their children at the trailer court testified that they saw a man staggering near the victim’s trailer shortly after 1:00 a.m. wearing a black satin jacket and dark jeans.  Another witness recalled Brown returning to his trailer, which was a short distance from the victim’s trailer, at 1:32 a.m.  A forensic expert testified that DNA found on the victim’s underwear matched a sample taken from Brown.  The odds against this match happening at random were 3 million to 1.  At the time of the assault, the population of the town of Carlin was approximately 2,100.

Brown testified that, after consuming 10 shots of vodka and several beer chasers, he was very intoxicated when he left the Peacock Bar, and he vomited several times while walking to his trailer.  He also stated that while he could not remember what time he got home, when he did arrive, he washed his jacket and pants because he needed them for a trip the next day.

The jury convicted Brown of the sexual assault.  After the verdict, Brown’s family convinced the judge to allow a second DNA test on a different sample, performed by an independent lab.  That test also matched Brown, with 10,000 to 1 odds against the match happening at random.  After noting that this second test also confirmed his guilt, the judge told Brown that it would make a “big difference” in his sentence if he admitted that he had assaulted the girl.  After Brown again declared his innocence, the judge sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole, plus 20 years.

Brown made several claims on appeal, including that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction and that the sentencing judge abused his discretion by punishing him more harshly because he refused to admit his guilt.  The Nevada Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing, but rejected the claim of insufficient evidence.

The second sentencing hearing resulted in Brown receiving two consecutive life terms, with the possibility of parole in 20 years.  Brown then pursued his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on state habeas corpus without success.  In February 2004, Brown filed his petition in the Federal District Court.  Two years later, after deciding the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision was unreasonable, Judge Philip M. Pro accepted a written statement from another DNA analyst hired by Brown.  That expert claimed that the trial expert’s responses to questions by the prosecutor were faulty, as was and the defense’s own post-trial test.  Based on that statement, the judge announced that the DNA evidence could not be considered, leaving only the testimonial evidence, which he found insufficient to support Brown’s conviction.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed that holding in a May 5, 2008 ruling.  In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF argued that among the many errors in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion were a failure to apply the correct standard in evaluating the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision and a failure to limit its review to the evidence introduced at trial.

Today’s Supreme Court opinion states, “In sum, the Court of Appeals analysis failed to preserve ‘the factfinder’s role as weigher of the evidence’ by reviewing ‘all of the evidence. . . in the light most favorable to the prosecution,’. . . and it further erred in finding that the Nevada Supreme Court’s resolution of the Jackson claim was objectively unreasonable.”  The decision sends the case back to the Ninth Circuit to consider another issue not decided in its previous ruling.