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UNITED STATES v. ROBINSON

April 2, 1947

UNITED STATES
v.
ROBINSON



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

The defendant was found guilty by a jury on a charge of robbery and moves to set the verdict aside and for a new trial on the ground that the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence. Before discussing the merits, it seems appropriate to define the principles that must govern the court in disposing of the application.

When both sides rested, the Court reached the conclusion that there was substantial evidence, which, if credited, justified the jury in finding the defendant guilty. In view of this circumstance, the Court submitted the case to the jury. In so doing, the Court was guided by the rule recently enunciated by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in Curley v. United States, 160 F.2d 229. In that case the pertinent principle was formulated as follows by Mr. Justice Prettyman:

 'The true rule, therefore, is that a trial judge, in passing upon a motion for directed verdict of acquittal, must determine whether upon the evidence, giving full play to the right of the jury to determine credibility, weigh the evidence, and draw justifiable inferences of fact, a reasonable mind might fairly conclude guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.'

 On a motion for judgment of acquittal (previously known as a motion for a directed verdict), *fn1" the Court is required to approach the evidence from standpoint most favorable to the Government, and to assume the truth of the evidence adduced in support of the indictment. If on this basis there is substantial evidence justifying an inference of guilt, irrespective of any countervailing testimony that may have been introduced, the motion must be denied and the issues must be submitted to the jury for its determination.

 The Supreme Court has summarized these principles as follows in Pierce v. United States, 252 U.S. 239, 251-252, 40 S. Ct. 205, 210, 64 L. Ed. 542:

 'There being substantial evidence in support of the charges, the court would have erred if it had peremptorily directed an acquittal upon any of the counts. The question whether the effect of the evidence was such as to overcome any reasonable doubt of guilt was for the jury, not the court, to decide.'

 It has been urged that the same considerations are applicable to a motion for a new trial. This corollary by no means follows. The rule applies to a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, because such a motion should be granted only if the Court on further reflection reaches the conclusion that it should have directed a judgment of acquittal instead of submitting the case to the jury. On the other hand, on a motion for a new trial on the ground that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the power of the Court is much broader. On such an application, the Court may weigh the evidence and consider the credibility of witnesses. If the Court reaches the conclusion that the verdict is contrary to the weight of the evidence and that a miscarriage of justice may have resulted, the verdict may be set aside and a new trial granted. Naturally, this authority should be exercised sparingly and with caution. It should be invoked only in exceptional cases in which the evidence preponderates heavily against the verdict.

 There is no incongruity or inconsistency in requiring the Court to submit the issues to the jury if there is substantial evidence to support a verdict of guilty, and at the same time in empowering it to set the verdict aside if it is deemed contrary to the weight of evidence. In directing a judgment of acquittal, the Court makes a final disposition of the case. On the other hand, in setting the verdict aside the Court merely grants a new trial and submits the issues for determination by another jury. It is appropriate that in the latter instance, the Court should have wide discretion in the interest of justice.

 The authorities sustain the foregoing views. The broad power of a common law judge to grant a new trial on the ground that the verdict is contrary to the weight of evidence or contrary to the evidence, was recognized in England at an early date, The King v. Mewbey, 6 Term Reports 620; Bright v. Enynon, 1 Burr. 393. This rule has long prevailed in the District of Columbia. Thus, in Lloyd v. Scott, Fed. Cas. No. 8434, 4 Cranch C.C. 206, 218, decided in 1832, Circuit Judge Cranch set a verdict aside as against the weight of the evidence and granted a new trial. He discussed the authorities at length and made the following remarks (4 Cranch at page 218):

 'It is objected, that there was evidence on both sides, and therefore the verdict cannot be said to be against evidence; and if the verdict was merely against the weight of evidence, the Court cannot grant a new trial.

 'But there is no rule of law or practice, which forbids a court to grant a new trial where the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. On the contrary, there have been many new trials granted on that ground.'

 Similarly, in the case of In re Hoover's Will, 7 Mackey, D.C., 541, 550, the Court made the following statement:

 'The power of the court to grant a new trial on the ground that the verdict is against the evidence or against the weight of the evidence, is one which has been exercised by the courts of Maryland from time out of mind, and it has also been exercised by the courts of this District ever since its separate organization, and it is too late now to bring it in question.'

 In a case which originated in the District of Columbia, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the authority of a trial judge to set a verdict aside on the ground that it is contrary to the weight of evidence, Metropolitan Railroad Co. v. Moore, 121 U.S. 558, 570, ...


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