The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted.
In this case, the court below held in effect that in a criminal trial, the jury may be instructed to ignore defense testimony unless it believes beyond a reasonable doubt that the testimony is true. That holding is fundamentally inconsistent with our prior decisions in In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970), and Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14 (1967), and must therefore be reversed.
After a jury trial, petitioner was found guilty of possessing and concealing, with intent to defraud, counterfeit obligations of the United States. The evidence showed that on June 2, 1970, petitioner, her husband, and one Robert E. Voyles were traveling together by car between St. Louis, Missouri, and Brazil, Indiana. Upon reaching Brazil, Voyles left petitioner and her husband and passed two counterfeit bills at a local store. He was then arrested shortly after he entered the car in which petitioner and her husband were waiting.
After his arrest, Voyles was placed in the police car and taken to the station house. Petitioner and her husband
Although petitioner testified in her own defense, she relied primarily on the testimony of Voyles. Voyles freely admitted his own guilt,
With the case in this posture, the Government's position clearly depended upon its ability to discredit Voyles, since his testimony was completely exculpatory. Over strenuous defense objection,
The clear implication of this instruction was that the jury should disregard Voyles' testimony unless it was "convinced it is true beyond a reasonable doubt."
Accomplice instructions have long been in use and have been repeatedly approved. See, e. g., Holmgren v. United States, 217 U.S. 509, 523-524 (1910). In most instances, they represent no more than a commonsense recognition that an accomplice may have a special interest in testifying, thus casting doubt upon his veracity. See, e. g., Crawford v. United States, 212 U.S. 183, 204 (1909). But in most of the recorded cases, the instruction has been used when the accomplice turned State's evidence and testified against the defendant. See generally McMillen v. United States, 386 F.2d 29 (CA1 1967), and cases cited therein. No constitutional problem is posed when the judge instructs a jury to receive the prosecution's accomplice testimony "with care and caution." See, e. g., United States v. George, 319 F.2d 77, 80 (CA6 1963). Cf. United States v. Nolte, 440 F.2d 1124 (CA5 1971).
In Washington v. Texas, supra, we held that a criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to present to the jury exculpatory testimony of an accomplice. The instruction given below impermissibly obstructs the exercise of that right by totally excluding relevant evidence unless the jury makes a preliminary determination that it is extremely reliable.
Moreover, the instruction also has the effect of substantially reducing the Government's burden of proof. We held in In re Winship, supra, that the Constitution requires proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is possible that Voyles' testimony would have created a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury, but that it was not considered because the testimony itself was not believable beyond a reasonable doubt. By creating an artificial barrier to the consideration of relevant defense testimony putatively credible by a preponderance of the evidence, the trial judge reduced the level of proof necessary for the Government to carry its burden. Indeed, where, as here, the defendant's case rests almost entirely on accomplice testimony, the effect of the judge's instructions is to require the defendant to establish his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Because such a requirement is plainly inconsistent with the constitutionally rooted presumption of innocence, the conviction must be reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
I believe that the Court's fine-spun parsing of the trial judge's charge to the jury turns the appellate review of this case into the sort of "quest for error" which was said in Bihn v. United States, 328 U.S. 633, 638 (1946), to be forbidden by Rule 52 (a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure,
The testimony of the witness Voyles, called by petitioner as a witness in her behalf, presented the trial judge with something of a dilemma in determining how he should charge the jury. Much of Voyles' testimony tended to exculpate petitioner, but there were significant aspects of it that did not. He substantiated the fact that the petitioner and her husband
The trial judge made clear in his colloquy with counsel, while dealing with their objections to the charge, that he
The trial court gave 36 separate instructions to the jury, which covered some 52 pages of the transcript in this case. The instruction in question covers two pages, and the Court reverses the conviction on the basis of one sentence in that one instruction. The trial judge repeatedly emphasized to the jury that the Government was obligated to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Typical is the following statement, which is repeated throughout the instructions in at least half a dozen places:
The record before us does not indicate that either counsel so much as mentioned the accomplice instruction in his argument to the jury. Nonetheless, the Court concludes that because the instruction contained a "negative pregnant" that could be taken to mean that the jurors should reject Voyles' testimony if they had a reasonable
I had thought the day long past when even appellate courts of the first instance, such as the Court of Appeals in this case, parsed instructions and engaged in nice semantic distinctions in the absence of any showing that would satisfy an ordinary lawyer or layman that substantial rights of one of the parties had been prejudiced by the supposed error. If the nuance of the instruction upon which reversal is now based did not suggest itself to petitioner's trial counsel, it seems doubtful that it suggested itself to the jury either:
Nor, as pointed out above, did this particular instruction of the trial court stand alone; it was incorporated into a series of instructions that had as their predominant theme that the burden of proof was upon the Government at every stage to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial court's instructions are to be taken as a whole, and even if an isolated passage might be error if standing by itself, that alone is not a sufficient ground
The Court's reversal on the ground that one of the instructions contained a "negative pregnant" smacks more of the scholastic jurisprudence whose shortcomings led to the enactment of 28 U. S. C. § 2111 than it does of the commonsense approach to appellate review that that section mandates.