I will be watching this case, but, honestly, I don't think it's worth the time for most. Ostensibly, the issue in the case is whether the Ninth Circuit properly applied the legal standard for insufficiency set forth in Jackson v. Virginia. Brown was convicted based on DNA evidence. During trial, the prosecutor had the expert testify to what's known as the "prosecutor's fallacy," in which an expert incorrectly equates "the probability that DNA of a random individual will match the DNA at a crime scene" with "the probability that an individual is innocent, given that he is a DNA match." As a math major, I probably should understand it better than I do. But probability was always my weakest area. The Ninth Circuit decision does a pretty good job of explaining it.
In federal court, an expert testified at a hearing and convinced the district court judge that the DNA testimony should be thrown out. The district court concluded that, once that evidence is removed from the case, there is insufficient evidence to support the conviction.
The Ninth Circuit agreed. It stated that a habeas court may exclude unreliable evidence where the admission of the evidence rendered the trial fundamentally unfair. The court concluded that the admission of the evidence violated petitioner's due process rights. The court then engaged in what looks to be an irregular insufficiency analysis and concluded that the evidence was insufficient.
Respondent was granted certiorari on two questions: (1) what is the standard of review for a federal habeas court analyzing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, and (2) can a federal habeas court expand the record to discredit evidence presented at trial.
So far, so interesting.
But here's where the case breaks down and why it probably won't be worth anybody's time, except as a mere curiosity. In the Supreme Court, petitioner abandoned the Ninth Circuit's decision. He argued that the Ninth Circuit did not engage in a sufficiency of the evidence analysis, but instead relied upon a separate due process theory. The court's sufficiency analysis was actually a harmless error analysis. He suggested to the court that it dismiss the case as cert. improvidently granted or remand the case to the Ninth Circuit to clarify its decision.
Argh. Good luck with that.
So I am very interested to see how the Supreme Court handles the case. Do they ignore petitioner and simply go after the Ninth Circuit? Probably. And without anybody defending the Ninth Circuit's analysis, it will probably get pretty ugly. Most likely, the Court will just restrict itself to beating up on the Ninth Circuit's sufficiency analysis without getting into the second question at all. That's probably a good thing since I am guessing it probably wouldn't be a happy ending for habeas petitioners on that question.
Overall, a curious case, but probably won't have much of an impact on the habeas world.