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Texas Supreme Court Announces Factual-Sufficiency Standard of Review in SVP Determinations

In 2004, Jeffery Lee Stoddard pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. He was scheduled to be released on parole in 2017 when the State alleged he was an SVP and petitioned that Stoddard be committed for treatment and supervision pursuit to the Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators Act, Texas Health and Safety Code, chapter 841 (“SVP Act”). After hearing testimony from Stoddard and the State’s expert, Dr. Timothy Proctor, a jury unanimously found beyond a reasonable doubt that Stoddard is an SVP, and the trial court ordered Stoddard be committed under the SVP Act.

The Court of Appeals (“COA”) reversed, determining that the standard governing factual-sufficiency review requires “weigh[ing] all the evidence in a neutral light to determine whether the jury’s finding is factually insufficient or is so great against the great weight and preponderance as to be manifestly unjust, shock the conscience, or clearly demonstrate bias.” In applying that standard, the COA deemed Proctor’s testimony insufficiently persuasive. The COA also compared Stoddard’s criminal actions and convictions with those of other defendants adjudged SVPs and found Stoddard’s insufficient. The COA further reasoned that the State failed to show Stoddard was one of a small but extremely dangerous group of SVPs likely to engage in repeated acts of sexual violence as required by the SVP Act.

The State petitioned the Texas Supreme Court for review, arguing, inter alia, that the COA improperly conducted its factual-sufficency review by considering evidence outside the record, created new elements unsupported by the SVP Act, and substituted its own view of the evidence for that of the jury.

The Texas Supreme Court observed “[a] commitment proceeding under the SVP Act is the unusual civil case incorporating the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ burden of proof typically reserved for criminal cases.” Inre Commitment of Fisher, 164 S.W.3d 637 (Tex. 2005). While the Supreme Court had not previously evaluated the effect of such a high standard of proof on the standards for conducting evidentiary-sufficiency review, it had earlier held that the standard of burden of proof at trial affects appellate review of the evidence. In re C.H., 89 S.W.3d 17 (Tex. 2002). When deciding a case where the burden of proof was the intermediate standard of clear and convincing evidence (“C&C Standard”), the Supreme Court had articulated that reviewing courts must “honor not only the elevated burden of proof, but also the deference an appellate court must have for the factfinder’s role.” In re A.C., 560 S.W.3d 624 (Tex. 2018). The jury always remains the sole judge of the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony. In re C.H.

There are two types of sufficiency reviews – “legal” and “factual” – and the distinction between them concerns the extent to which disputed evidence contrary to a finding may be considered. In re A.C. In the context of the C&C Standard, a legal-sufficiency review requires the court to: (1) review the evidence in the light most favorable to the finding, (2) assume that the factfinder resolved disputed facts in favor of the finding where possible, and (3) disregard all disputed evidence that doesn’t support the finding if the factfinder could have disbelieved that evidence. In re J.F.C., 96 S.W.3d 256 (Tex. 2002). But a factual-sufficiency review differs in that the court must consider the entire record and instead of disregarding disputed evidence that doesn’t support the finding, the court must determine whether that evidence is so significant that a factfinder could not reasonably have formed a belief or conviction the finding was true. Id. Neither standard permits undisputed facts be disregarded. Id.

The State argued that the Court should abandon factual-sufficiency reviews in SVP cases and instead adopt a single legal-sufficiency standard. The Court rejected the State’s position and announced the following governing standard:

“The appellate standard governing a factual-sufficiency review of a finding that a person is a sexually violent predator is whether, in light of the entire record, the disputed evidence a reasonable factfinder could not have credited in favor of the verdict, along with undisputed facts contrary to the verdict, is so significant that the factfinder could not have found beyond a reasonable doubt that the statutory elements were met. Further, in reversing for factual insufficiency, the appellate court must detail why it has concluded that a reasonable factfinder could not have credited disputed evidence in favor of the finding.”

Having announced the standard, the Court determined that the COA erred because that court reversed based upon a determination that the State’s expert evidence was not persuasive. That is, the COA failed to give deference to the factfinder’s right to determine the weight to be given to the witness’ testimony. Also, the COA failed to make any determination that the evidence not supporting the finding was so significant that the jury could not have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Stoddard was an SVP. The COA also went outside the record when it compared the evidence in Stoddard’s case with other SVP determinations. Finally, the COA erred when it determined that the State failed to show Stoddard was one of a small but extremely dangerous group of SVPs likely to engage in repeated acts of sexual violence.

While the legislature stated within the SVP Act that it had found such a small group of dangerous SVPs existed, the SVP Act didn’t include that finding in the elements that the State must prove. An SVP finding requires only that the State prove (1) Stoddard was a repeat sexually violent offender and (2) he suffered from a behavioral abnormality that made him likely to engage in an act of sexual violence.

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Related legal case

In re Stoddard

 

 

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