A Virginia man convicted of committing premeditated murder - while allegedly dead dunk - won a bittersweet victory yesterday: he remains in prison even though his constitutional arguments prevailed in the Supreme Court.
The justices ruled, 8 to 0, in a case from Chesterfield County, a Richmond suburb, involving James A. Jackson, 30, who drew a 30-year sentence in 1975 for the first-degree murder of Mary Houston Cole. Under Virginia law, murder is defined as an unlawful killing "with malice aforethought."
Evidence at the trial showed that Jackson had drunk at least as much as his victim, whose blood alcohol level was 70 percent higher than the intoxication level. Jackson described his condition as "pretty high" but not drunk. But he also said that the state's own evidence showed he was too drunk to have had the intent necessary to sustain a first-degree murder conviction.
County Circuit Judge Ernest P. Gates, trying Jackson without a jury, convicted and sentenced him, and the Virginia Supreme Court refused to review the case.
U.S. District Judge J. Dortch Warriner later overturned the conviction, however, finding the record "totally devoid of any evidence of premeditation."
In doing so, Warriner relied on a 1960 ruling in which the Supreme Court held that in determining whether a state court had denied due process of law to a criminal defendant, the justices would consider not whether the charges were supported by sufficient evidence, but whether they were supported by any evidence at all.
Applying the same ruling, known as Thompson vs. Louisville, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually reversed Warriner on the ground that there was "some" evidence of premeditation.
Jackson, who will become eligible for parole next year, then asked the Supreme Court for help.
He invoked a 1970 ruling that the Constitution requires every element of an alleged offense to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Under that ruling, said his court-appointed defense counsel, Carolyn J. Colville of Richmond, a federal judge must consider not whether there was "any" evidence for conviction, but whether the evidence was enough to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In the first decision of its kind, the court agreed with her.
The "no evidence" rule, Justice Potter Stewart wrote for the court, "is simply inadequate to protect against misapplications of the constitutional standard of reasonable doubt . . ."
But Stewart saw no reason to take Jackson out of the penitentiary in Richmond. "A review of the record in the light most favorable to the prosecution convinces us that a rational fact finder could readily have found [him] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of first-degree murder under Virginia law," he said.
In a separate opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens protested that the ruling went too far by creating a "novel constitutional rule" unnecessary to the decision of hte case.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist signed Stevens' opinion. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. did not participate.