The question presented is whether, in a case in which intent is an element of the crime charged; the jury instruction, "the law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts," violates the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the State prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt.
On November 22, 1976, 18-year-old David Sandstrom confessed to the slaying of Annie Jessen. Based upon the confession and corroborating evidence, petitioner was charged on December 2 with "deliberate homicide," Mont. Code Ann. § 45-5-102 (1978), in that he "purposely or knowingly caused the death of Annie Jessen." App. 3.
Sandstrom appealed to the Supreme Court of Montana, again contending that the instruction shifted to the defendant the burden of disproving an element of the crime charged, in violation of Mullaney v. Wilbur, supra, In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970), and Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977). The Montana court conceded that these cases did prohibit shifting the burden of proof to the defendant by means of a presumption, but held that the cases "do not prohibit allocation of some burden of proof to a defendant under certain circumstances." 176 Mont. 492, 497, 580 P.2d 106, 109 (1978). Since in the court's view, "[d]efendant's sole burden under instruction No. 5 was to produce some evidence that he did not intend the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts, not to disprove that he acted `purposely' or `knowingly,' . . . the instruction does not violate due process
Both federal and state courts have held, under a variety of rationales, that the giving of an instruction similar to that challenged here is fatal to the validity of a criminal conviction.
The threshold inquiry in ascertaining the constitutional analysis applicable to this kind of jury instruction is to determine the nature of the presumption it describes. See Ulster County Court v. Allen, ante, at 157-163. That determination requires careful attention to the words actually spoken to the jury, see ante, at 157-159, n. 16, for whether a defendant has been accorded his constitutional rights depends upon the way in which a reasonable juror could have interpreted the instruction.
Respondent argues, first, that the instruction merely described a permissive inference—that is, it allowed but did not require the jury to draw conclusions about defendant's intent from his actions—and that such inferences are constitutional. Brief for Respondent 3, 15. These arguments need not detain us long, for even respondent admits that "it's possible" that
In the alternative, respondent urges that, even if viewed as a mandatory presumption rather than as a permissive inference, the presumption did not conclusively establish intent but rather could be rebutted. On this view, the instruction required the jury, if satisfied as to the facts which trigger the presumption, to find intent unless the defendant offered evidence to the contrary. Moreover, according to the State, all the defendant had to do to rebut the presumption was produce "some" contrary evidence; he did not have to "prove" that he lacked the required mental state. Thus, "[a]t most, it placed a burden of production on the petitioner," but "did not shift to petitioner the burden of persuasion with respect to any element of the offense . . . ." Brief for Respondent 3 (emphasis added). Again, respondent contends that presumptions with this limited effect pass constitutional muster.
We need not review respondent's constitutional argument on this point either, however, for we reject this characterization of the presumption as well. Respondent concedes there is a "risk" that the jury, once having found petitioner's act
The Supreme Court of Montana is, of course, the final authority on the legal weight to be given a presumption under Montana law, but it is not the final authority on the interpretation
First, a reasonable jury could well have interpreted the presumption as "conclusive," that is, not technically as a presumption at all, but rather as an irrebuttable direction by the court to find intent once convinced of the facts triggering the presumption. Alternatively, the jury may have interpreted the instruction as a direction to find intent upon proof of the defendant's voluntary actions (and their "ordinary" consequences), unless the defendant proved the contrary by some quantum of proof which may well have been considerably greater than "some" evidence—thus effectively shifting the burden of persuasion on the element of intent. Numerous federal and state courts have warned that instructions of the type given here can be interpreted in just these ways. See generally United States v. Wharton, 139 U. S. App. D. C. 293, 433 F.2d 451 (1970); Berkovitz v. United States, 213 F.2d 468 (CA5 1954); State v. Roberts, 88 Wn.2d 337, 341-342, 562 P.2d 1259, 1261-1262 (1977) (en banc); State v. Warbritton,
In Winship, this Court stated:
Accord, Patterson v. New York, 432 U. S., at 210. The petitioner here was charged with and convicted of deliberate homicide, committed purposely or knowingly, under Mont. Code Ann. § 45-5-102 (a) (1978). See App. 3, 42. It is clear that under Montana law, whether the crime was committed purposely or knowingly is a fact necessary to constitute the crime of deliberate homicide.
We consider first the validity of a conclusive presumption. This Court has considered such a presumption on at least two prior occasions. In Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952), the defendant was charged with willful and knowing theft of Government property. Although his attorney argued that for his client to be found guilty, "the taking must have been with felonious intent," the trial judge ruled that "[t]hat is presumed by his own act." Id., at 249. After first concluding that intent was in fact an element of the crime charged, and after declaring that "[w]here intent of the accused
Just last Term, in United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422 (1978), we reaffirmed the holding of Morissette. In that case defendants, who were charged with criminal violations of the Sherman Act, challenged the following jury instruction:
See also Hickory v. United States, 160 U.S. 408, 422 (1896).
As in Morissette and United States Gypsum Co., a conclusive presumption in this case would "conflict with the overriding presumption of innocence with which the law endows the accused and which extends to every element of the crime," and would "invade [the] factfinding function" which in a criminal case the law assigns solely to the jury. The instruction announced to David Sandstrom's jury may well have had exactly these consequences. Upon finding proof of one element of the crime (causing death), and of facts insufficient to establish the second (the voluntariness and "ordinary consequences" of defendant's action), Sandstrom's jurors could reasonably have concluded that they were directed to find against defendant on the element of intent. The State was thus not forced to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt . . . every fact necessary to constitute the crime . . . charged," 397 U. S., at 364, and defendant was deprived of his constitutional rights as explicated in Winship.
Because David Sandstrom's jury may have interpreted the judge's instruction as constituting either a burden-shifting presumption like that in Mullaney, or a conclusive presumption like those in Morissette and United States Gypsum Co., and because either interpretation would have deprived defendant of his right to the due process of law, we hold the instruction given in this case unconstitutional.
Respondent has proposed two alternative rationales for affirming petitioner's conviction, even if the presumption at issue in this case is unconstitutional. First, the State notes that the jury was instructed that deliberate homicide may be committed "purposely or knowingly."
We cannot accept respondent's argument. As an initial matter, we are not at all certain that a jury would interpret the word "intends" as bearing solely upon purpose. As we said in United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U. S., at 445, "[t]he element of intent in the criminal law has traditionally
But, more significantly, even if a jury could have ignored the presumption and found defendant guilty because he acted knowingly, we cannot be certain that this is what they did do.
Respondent's final argument is that even if the jury did rely upon the unconstitutional instruction, this constituted harmless error under Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), because both defendant's confession and the psychiatrist's testimony demonstrated that Sandstrom possessed the requisite mental state. Brief for Respondent 4-13. In reply, it is said that petitioner confessed only to the slaying and not to his mental state, that the psychiatrist's testimony amply supported his defense, Brief for Petitioner 15-16, and that in any event an unconstitutional jury instruction on an element of the crime can never constitute harmless error, see generally
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, concurring.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits any State from depriving a person of liberty without due process of law, and in Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684 (1975), this Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees prohibit a State from shifting to the defendant the burden of disproving an element of the crime charged. I am loath to see this Court go into the business of parsing jury instructions given by state trial courts, for as we have consistently recognized, "a single instruction to a jury may not be judged in artificial isolation, but must be viewed in the context of the overall charge." Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 146-147 (1973). And surely if this charge had, in the words of the Court, "merely described a permissive inference," ante, at 514, it could not conceivably have run afoul of the constitutional decisions cited by the Court in its opinion. But a majority of my Brethren conclude that "it is clear that a reasonable juror could easily have viewed such an instruction as mandatory," ante, at 515, and counsel for the State admitted in oral argument "that `it's possible' that the jury believed they were required to apply the presumption." Ante, at 514-515.
"45-5-101. Criminal homicide. (1) A person commits the offense of criminal homicide if he purposely, knowingly, or negligently causes the death of another human being.
"(2) Criminal homicide is deliberate homicide, mitigated deliberate homicide, or negligent homicide.
"45-5-102. Deliberate homicide. (1) Except as provided in 45-5-103 (1), criminal homicide constitutes deliberate homicide if:
"(a) it is committed purposely or knowingly . . . ."
"`[D]isputable presumptions' . . . may be controverted by other evidence. The following are of that kind:
"3. that a person intends the ordinary consequence of his voluntary act." Montana Rule of Evidence 301 provides:
"(b) (2) All presumptions, other than conclusive presumptions, are disputable presumptions and may be controverted. A disputable presumption may be overcome by a preponderance of evidence contrary to the presumption. Unless the presumption is overcome, the trier of fact must find the assumed fact in accordance with the presumption." (Emphasis added.)
See also Monaghan v. Standard Motor Co., 96 Mont. 165, 173-174, 29 P.2d 378, 379-380 (1934). At oral argument, the Attorney General of Montana agreed that "admittedly Montana law . . . states that a presumption requires a person to overcome that presumption by a preponderance of evidence." Tr. of Oral Arg. 30.
We do not, of course, cite this Rule of Evidence to dispute the Montana Supreme Court's interpretation of its own law. It merely serves as evidence that a reasonable man—here, apparently, the drafter of Montana's own Rules of Evidence—could interpret the presumption at issue in this case as shifting to the defendant the burden of proving his innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.
A line of even older cases urged upon us by respondent is equally inapplicable. In Agnew v. United States, 165 U.S. 36, 50 (1897), the trial court's instruction expressly stated that the presumption was not conclusive, and this Court found that other problems with the instruction were cured by the charge considered as a whole. The other proffered cases simply involved general comments by the Court upon the validity of presuming intent from action. See Radio Officers v. NLRB, 347 U.S. 17, 45 (1954); Cramer v. United States, 325 U.S. 1, 31 (1945). See also Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 167 (1879) (religious objection to polygamy law not a defense).
"In Montana, a person commits the offense of deliberate homicide if he purposely or knowingly causes the death of another human being. Sections 94-5-102 (1) (a), 94-5-101 (1), R. C. M. 1947. The statutorily defined elements of the offense, each of which the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, are therefore causing the death of another human being with the knowledge that you are causing or with the purpose to cause the death of that human being." (Emphasis added.)
Accord, State v. Collins, 178 Mont. 36, 45, 582 P.2d 1179, 1184 (1978) ("committing the homicide `purposely or knowingly' is an element of deliberate homicide").
"INSTRUCTION NO. 7
"`Knowingly' is defined as follows: A person acts knowingly with respect to conduct or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of his conduct or that the circumstance exists. A person acts knowingly with respect to the result of conduct described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware that it is highly probable that such result will be caused by his conduct. When knowledge of the existence of a particular fact is an element of an offense, such knowledge is established if a person is aware of a high probability of its existence. Equivalent terms such as `knowing' or `with knowledge' have the same meaning.
"INSTRUCTION NO. 8
"`Purposely' is defined as follows: A person acts purposely with respect to a result or to conduct described by a statute defining an offense if it is his conscious object to engage in that conduct or to cause that result." App. 35-36.