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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Reinstates Accomplice Conviction, Says 3rd Circuit Failed to Respect Jury Role

Posted May 29, 2012 9:54 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has reinstated the accomplice and co-conspirator conviction of a Pennsylvania man accused in a 1995 shotgun death.

The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction of defendant Lorenzo Johnson. The Supreme Court reversed in a per curiam decision (PDF).

Johnson was with the accused triggerman, Corey Walker, on the night of the murder, the Supreme Court said. Before the slaying, Walker had tried to collect a debt from the victim, who responded by beating Walker with a broomstick, a witness had testified. Walker vowed to get even. On the night of the murder, witnesses saw Johnson and Walker accompany the victim to an alley; Walker was carrying a bulky object under his overcoat.

The 3rd Circuit had said Johnson may have intended to confront or harass the victim, but the notion that he had an intent to kill was “mere speculation.” The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the 3rd Circuit “failed to afford due respect to the role of the jury and the state courts of Pennsylvania.”

When a state court upholds a conviction challenged on the basis of insufficient evidence, the federal courts may not overturn the state court decision unless it was objectively unreasonable, the Supreme Court said. “We conclude that the evidence at Johnson’s trial was not nearly sparse enough to sustain a due process challenge,” the per curiam opinion said.

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