Georgia Appeals Law Guide / Appellate Law Treatise

Rational Trier of Fact

On an appeal by a criminal defendant, the appeals court considers “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.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979). The guarantee of due process in the United States Constitution requires application of this “rational trier of fact” standard in state court. The rational trier of fact standard is somewhat less deferential to the trial court than the “any evidence” or “some evidence” standard applied in civil cases. The criminal standard is sometimes described as “sufficient evidence.” After a criminal conviction, the existence of “some evidence” in support of the factual findings is not necessarily enough to sustain the verdict; there must be enough evidence for a rational trier of fact to find each of the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. See Williamson v. State, 248 Ga. 47, 49 (281 SE2d 512) (1981) (discussing development of the rule in Jackson and difference between “some evidence” and “rational trier of fact” standards).

The Supreme Court further elaborated on the standard in Rankin v. State, 278 Ga. 704, 705 (606 SE2d 269) (2004) (citation omitted): “On appeal from a criminal conviction, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and an appellant no longer enjoys the presumption of innocence. This Court determines whether the evidence is sufficient under the standard of Jackson v. Virginia, and does not weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility. Any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence are for the jury to resolve. As long as there is some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State’s case, we must uphold the jury’s verdict.”

Circumstantial Evidence

That the evidence supporting a criminal conviction is circumstantial is not grounds for reversal of the verdict. See Walden v. State, 289 Ga. 845, 846 (717 SE2d 159) (2011) (affirming conviction based on circumstantial evidence, where the evidence was “substantial”). “Circumstantial evidence must exclude only reasonable inferences and hypotheses and it is not necessary that such evidence be devoid of every inference or hypothesis except that of the defendant’s guilt. Questions as to reasonableness are generally to be decided by the jury which heard the evidence and where the jury is authorized to find that the evidence, though circumstantial, was sufficient to exclude every reasonable hypothesis save that of guilt, the appellate court will not disturb the finding, unless the verdict is unsupportable as a matter of law.” Casey v. State, 246 Ga. App. 786, 789 (542 SE2d 531) (2000) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

Termination of Parental Rights

In appeals of decisions terminating parental rights, the appeals court also applies a “rational trier of fact” standard, but with a lower “clear and convincing evidence” standard of proof. The question is “whether, after reviewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the lower court’s judgments, any rational trier of fact could have found by clear and convincing evidence that the natural parent’s rights to custody have been lost.” In re J.E., 309 Ga. App. 51 (711 SE2d 5, 7) (2011) (citation and quotation marks omitted); see also In re C.J.V., 323 Ga. App. 283, 283 (746 SE2d 783) (2013) (reversing order terminating parental rights, “[b]ecause the evidence does not show clearly and convincingly that the cause of the deprivation of the children is likely to continue or will not likely be remedied”).

Competency to Stand Trial

In Sims v. State, 279 Ga. 389 (614 SE2d 73) (2005), the Supreme Court addressed the standard of appellate review of a determination that a defendant is mentally competent to stand trial. Under applicable statutes, there was a presumption that a defendant is competent, but a defendant could establish incompetency by a special jury trial, in which the defendant bore the burden of proof by preponderance of the evidence. Id., 614 SE2d at 75. A special jury found Sims competent, and the Court of Appeals, applying the “any evidence” standard from civil cases, affirmed. Id. The Supreme Court reversed. Noting “the ‘any evidence’ standard of review thwarts genuine review of an appeal from a verdict of competency because the presumption of competency would always provide some evidence in support of a finding of competency,” id. at 76, and that a competency determination is “quasi-criminal,” the Court “conclude[d] that because a substantive competency claim requires the defendant to meet the higher standard of proof of incompetency by a preponderance of the evidence, the appropriate standard of appellate review is whether after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, a rational trier of fact could have found that the defendant failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was incompetent to stand trial.” Id. (citation omitted).