JUSTICE BLACKMUN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE MARSHALL joined.
In Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979), this Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated by a jury instruction that "the law presumes
Respondent Lindsay B. Johnson was accused in a fourcount information of attempted murder, kidnaping in the second degree, robbery in the first degree, and sexual assault in the first degree. His jury trial in Connecticut Superior Court concluded with a verdict of guilty on all counts.
The evidence at trial revealed the following sequence of events: At approximately 11 p. m. on December 20, 1975, respondent and three male companions were in an automobile
When the woman reached a location familiar to her, she stopped and waited for respondent to get out of the car. Instead, respondent pulled her over to the passenger side of the car, and one of his companions entered on the other side and started to drive. The woman was told that the men needed a car. Shortly thereafter the second car was abandoned, and its two occupants got into the woman's car. The four men verbally abused her, threatened her with bodily harm, displayed a knife, and told her that the driver had a gun. The group stopped again in Norwalk to pick up a fifth man. During still another stop, one of the men placed a fully loaded, semiautomatic rifle in the trunk. When the woman asked the group to take the car and leave her alone, they replied that she would be given money and left near her home at the end of the evening.
The men then drove the car eastward on the Connecticut Turnpike to New Haven. Respondent, who is black, remarked that he had "never had a white woman before." Tr. 50,262. The group arrived in New Haven in the early morning and stopped for gas. Respondent then directed the driver to a large apartment complex, where he pulled the woman from the car and into a lavatory on the first floor of the building. There, all five men sexually assaulted her.
When the woman was returned to the car, respondent bound her hands with telephone cord. Respondent told her that she would be left with a dime near a telephone booth so she could call home while they made their getaway. After directing the driver to a bridge, respondent pulled the woman out of the car and forced her to run with him to the middle of the bridge. They struggled and respondent threw her over the railing. She landed on a large pipe but jumped
Relying on information provided by the woman, police arrested respondent and the other four men in Norwalk a few hours later. Two days thereafter, the victim identified all five from an array of 15 photographs. She also identified respondent in court,
The defense theory, as indicated by the cross-examination of the State's witnesses,
The trial court's charge to the jury began with general instructions on applicable principles of law. The jury was told to accept the court's pronouncements of the law but to be the sole judge of the facts. The court explained the presumption of innocence and the State's burden of proving the existence of every element of the crimes charged beyond a reasonable doubt. The court then described intent as
The court then gave specific instructions on the elements of each crime. With respect to attempted murder, the court again spoke of a conclusive presumption.
Respondent filed a timely appeal in December 1976, but because of problems with the reporter in obtaining a complete transcript the appeal was not briefed and argued until February 1981. In the interim, this Court decided Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979). Respondent argued on appeal that the "conclusively presumed" language in the jury instructions on intent rendered the instructions unconstitutional under Sandstrom.
The Supreme Court of Connecticut affirmed respondent's convictions for kidnaping and sexual assault, but reversed
The specific instruction on attempted murder had repeated the erroneous-presumption language, so the court reversed respondent's conviction on that count. Id., at 173, 440 A. 2d, at 863. The kidnaping instruction, however, had been couched in the permissive language of inference. Finding that this language had a "significant curative effect," id., at 174, 440 A. 2d, at 864, the court affirmed respondent's kidnaping conviction. With respect to the robbery count, the court refused to assume that the jury had applied the permissive inferences contained in the instruction on kidnaping, rather than the conclusive presumption earlier described as applicable to all the offenses. It thus reversed that conviction. Id., at 174-176, 440 A. 2d, at 864-865. Finally, the
The court did not discuss the State's argument that the Sandstrom violation was harmless, seemingly relying on its recent decision in State v. Truppi, 182 Conn. 449, 438 A.2d 712 (1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 941 (1981).
In Chapman, this Court noted that "there are some constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error." Id., at 23, and n. 8 (citing Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) (right to counsel); Payne v. Arkansas, 356 U.S. 560 (1958) (coerced confession); Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927) (impartial judge)). Resolving the question reserved three years earlier in Fahy v. Connecticut, 375 U.S. 85, 86 (1963), the Court held that some constitutional errors may be considered harmless
Chapman continued a trend away from the practice of appellate courts in this country and in England of "revers[ing] judgments for the most trivial errors." R. Traynor, The Riddle of Harmless Error 13 (1970) (hereafter Traynor). Even with the enactment of harmless-error statutes designed to eliminate reversals based on technical errors,
In Bollenbach v. United States, 326 U.S. 607 (1946), the jury returned a guilty verdict just five minutes after receiving a supplemental instruction containing an improper presumption. This Court reversed the conviction, noting that to "say that the lay jury will know enough to disregard the judge's bad law if in fact he misguides them . . . would transfer to the jury the judge's function in giving the law and transfer to the appellate court the jury's function of measuring the evidence by appropriate legal yardsticks." Id., at 613-614. The Court rejected the Government's contention that the error was harmless in view of the abundant evidence on the issue in question, stating:
The following year the Court decided Carpenters v. United States, 330 U.S. 395 (1947). In that case the defendants, who were unions charged with conspiracy to violate the Sherman Act, unsuccessfully had requested an instruction that a union can be found guilty for its agents' unlawful acts only if the union actually participated in, authorized, or ratified the acts. This Court held that the requested instruction correctly stated the law, and refused to find the error harmless even though there was evidence showing the unions' participation in the conspiracy:
We agree with the State that, in light of Chapman, these cases cannot be read for the broad proposition that instructional error of constitutional dimensions may never be harmless. This is not to say, however, that any form of instructional error should be analyzed for harmlessness. The question here is whether a charge that might reasonably
The Court consistently has held that "a trial judge is prohibited from entering a judgment of conviction or directing the jury to come forward with such a verdict . . . regardless of how overwhelmingly the evidence may point in that direction." United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 572-573 (1977); see Carpenters v. United States, 330 U. S., at 408; Sparf & Hansen v. United States, 156 U.S. 51, 105 (1895). And Sandstrom makes it clear, we think, that a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent is the functional equivalent of a directed verdict on that issue.
In Sandstrom the jury was instructed that "the law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." 442 U. S., at 512. We held that instruction unconstitutional because a reasonable juror might have viewed it as creating a conclusive or burden-shifting presumption on intent. Rather than evaluating the evidence to determine if the State had overcome the presumption of innocence and proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had intended to kill, the jurors might have believed that, upon finding certain preliminary facts, "they were directed to find against defendant on the element of intent." Id., at 523.
The Supreme Court of Connecticut, in holding the charge at issue unconstitutional under Sandstrom, found that respondent's jurors, like Sandstrom's, reasonably could have interpreted the court's charge as a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent. Such an interpretation would have led them to ignore the evidence in finding that the State had proved respondent guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, the jury conclusively could have presumed that respondent intended to kill the victim once it found that the
Because a conclusive presumption eases the jury's task, "there is no reason to believe the jury would have deliberately undertaken the more difficult task" of evaluating the evidence of intent. Sandstrom, 442 U. S., at 526, n. 13; see Note, Presumptive Intent Jury Instructions After Sandstrom, 1980 Wis. L. Rev. 366, 388.
An erroneous presumption on a disputed element of the crime renders irrelevant the evidence on the issue because the jury may have relied upon the presumption rather than upon that evidence.
There may be rare situations in which the reviewing court can be confident that a Sandstrom error did not play any role in the jury's verdict. For example, if the erroneous instruction was given in connection with an offense for which the defendant was acquitted and if the instruction had no bearing on the offense for which he was convicted, it would be appropriate to find the error harmless. See, e. g., Hearn v. James, 677 F.2d 841, 843 (CA11 1982); State v. Sheldon, 301 N.W.2d 604, 613 (N. D. 1980), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 1002 (1981). In addition, a Sandstrom error may be harmless if the defendant conceded the issue of intent. See, e. g., Krzeminski v. Perini, 614 F.2d 121, 125 (CA6), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 866 (1980). See also Washington v. Harris, 650 F.2d 447, 453-454 (CA2 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 951 (1982). In presenting a defense such as alibi, insanity, or self-defense, a defendant may in some cases admit that the act alleged by the prosecution was intentional, thereby sufficiently reducing the likelihood that the jury applied the erroneous instruction as to permit the appellate court to consider the error harmless. See Traynor 73. We leave it to the lower courts to determine whether, by raising a particular defense or by his other actions, a defendant himself has taken the issue of intent away from the jury.
Such an exception, regardless of its precise boundaries, does not apply here. Respondent did not concede the issue of intent with respect to either of the counts at issue. As noted above, the instruction was not "so ill-suited to both the theory on which the case was tried and the evidence that was presented," United States v. Winter, 663 F.2d 1120, 1145 (CA1 1981), cert. pending, No. 81-1392, that it can be deemed harmless. The conclusive presumption the jury was
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Connecticut is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
If federal constitutional error occurs in a state criminal trial, federal law places certain limits on the state appellate court's disposition of the case. If the error is sufficiently grievous, it must reverse.
CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, dissenting.
I join JUSTICE POWELL's dissenting opinion, and write separately only to emphasize that the Court today does not adopt a rule of automatic reversal for Sandstrom error. Only four Justices would adopt a rule requiring reversal for Sandstrom error, whether harmless or not, in all cases. Such a rule is contrary to this Court's holding, with only one dissent, in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 21-22 (1967), which rejected a rule of automatic reversal for all constitutional errors.
JUSTICE POWELL, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE REHNQUIST, and JUSTICE O'CONNOR join, dissenting.
Today a plurality of this Court finds that an instruction given in violation of Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979), cannot be considered harmless except in certain "rare situations." The effect of the plurality's opinion, if it became a binding holding of the Court, would be to create an automatic reversal rule whenever a Sandstrom-type instruction is given, regardless of the conclusiveness of the evidence of intent. In my view, this is serious error.
It is necessary to address the jurisdictional issue raised in JUSTICE STEVENS' concurrence before considering the plurality's disposition of the merits. JUSTICE STEVENS would not reach the merits because the Connecticut Supreme Court, when requested to determine whether the Sandstrom error was harmless, declined to do so. Accordingly he concludes that no federal question is presented. It is unclear whether he takes the view that a state court may apply the federal harmless-error rule to provide a defendant with greater protection than Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18
The harmless-error rule announced in Chapman was designed to establish the federal standard necessary "to protect people from infractions by the States of federally guaranteed rights." Id., at 21. A State, of course, may apply a more stringent state harmless-error rule than Chapman would require. See PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74, 81 (1980). "But . . . a State may not impose such greater restrictions as a matter of federal constitutional law when this Court specifically refrains from imposing them." Oregon v. Hass, 420 U.S. 714, 719 (1975) (emphasis in original). Accordingly, if Connecticut wishes to impose a more stringent standard than the federal rule, it must do so as a matter of state law.
An examination of Connecticut cases establishes that the State has not taken this course. Connecticut has enacted a state harmless-error statute applicable only to errors of state law or procedure. See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-265 (1960); State v. L'Heureux, 166 Conn. 312, 323-324, 348 A.2d 578, 584 (1974). The state rule is strikingly less stringent than the federal since it places the burden of proving that the error was "materially injurious" on the party who claims the trial court erred. Connecticut does not apply its state standard to federal constitutional error. It applies instead a federal rule. As the Connecticut Supreme Court explained in State v. Coleman, 167 Conn. 260, 355 A.2d 11 (1974):
The state court has adhered consistently to this distinction. See, e. g., State v. Cooper, 182 Conn. 207, 212-213, 438 A.2d 418, 421 (1980); State v. Ruth, 181 Conn. 187, 196-197, 435 A.2d 3, 7-8 (1980); Aillon v. State, 168 Conn. 541, 547-548, 363 A.2d 49, 53 (1975).
As both the plurality opinion and JUSTICE STEVENS note, the State Supreme Court did not address the State's argument in this case that the Sandstrom error was harmless. Its silence was based apparently on its decision in State v. Truppi, 182 Conn. 449, 438 A.2d 712 (1980), where it held that Sandstrom error may never be harmless. Truppi therefore must be examined to determine whether the State intended to depart from its longstanding rule that it will apply a federal test to federal error.
Truppi prefaced its discussion of harmless error with a reference to the less demanding state harmless-error rule. See 182 Conn., at 465, 438 A. 2d, at 721. It then articulated the two classes of error recognized by Chapman, those errors that can never be harmless and those that can. 182 Conn., at 465, 438 A. 2d, at 721 (citing Chapman, supra, at 23). In its subsequent discussion, Truppi contrasted federal errors that "d[o] not significantly impair the truth finding function of the trial" with Sandstrom error. See 182 Conn., at 466, 438 A. 2d, at 721. It determined that the instructional nature of a Sandstrom error poses a risk that the jury will fail to consider the evidence and deprives a defendant of the protection afforded by requiring proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 182 Conn., at 466, 438 A. 2d, at 721. It is in this context that Truppi concludes "we decline to weigh the evidence of guilt." Ibid. It reasoned that to do so would constitute an invasion of the jury's function by an appellate
Thus, the Connecticut court in Truppi appears to have adopted — as the federal rule — the view that today's plurality seems to favor: Sandstrom error falls within that class of federal errors that can never be harmless.
In Sandstrom the trial court instructed the jury that "[t]he law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." 442 U. S., at 513. The Court held that, where intent is an essential element of the crime, the giving of such an instruction is constitutional error. As we noted, on finding only that Sandstrom had caused the victim's death and had acted voluntarily, the jurors
The plurality today goes much further. It interprets Sandstrom as establishing that a conclusive presumption instruction on the issue of intent is the "functional equivalent" of a directed verdict on that issue. See ante, at 84. The plurality qualifies this categorical statement where "a defendant himself has taken the issue away from the jury' — i. e., it would view the error as harmless only where "the defendant concede[s] the issue of intent." Ante, at 87. This is hardly an exception. Indeed, where intent to kill is conceded — as where self-defense is pleaded — there would be no occasion to give a Sandstrom instruction. The effect of the plurality's holding is that this type of instruction can never be harmless.
In Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), the Court rejected the argument that "all federal constitutional errors, regardless of the facts and circumstances, must always be deemed harmful." Id., at 21. It recognized that in the context of a particular case, some errors have little, if any, likelihood of affecting the jury's verdict. Accordingly, the proper inquiry is whether a court may say "beyond a reasonable
Today the plurality substantially limits Chapman's harmless-error doctrine. It establishes a rule of automatic reversal because of the difficulty in determining the effect of a Sandstrom error on a jury's verdict. This difficulty, it reasons, derives from the error's instructional nature, particularly a perceived resemblance to a directed verdict. See ante, at 83-88. The analogy the plurality draws, however, between a conclusive Sandstrom instruction and a directed verdict is inapt. A directed verdict removes an issue completely from the jury's consideration. Such a presumption, by contrast, leaves the issue ultimately to the jury. A trial court's instructions are not limited to the presumption. A court also, as was done in this case, will charge that the defendant is presumed innocent and that the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt each element of the crime — including the element of intent. See infra, at 101. In the context of these instructions, the presumption provides the jury only with one means by which the State's burden of persuasion may be satisfied.
The plurality seeks to justify its automatic reversal rule by the view that a conclusive presumption permits a jury to convict a defendant "without ever examining the evidence concerning an element of the crimes charged." Ante, at 88. While this accurately describes the effect of a directed verdict, it misperceives the way a presumption instruction, conclusive or otherwise, functions. A presumption instruction informs the jury that once a party has proved A, the basic fact, the jury can or must presume B, the presumed fact.
As indicated above, the effect of the plurality opinion is to create an automatic reversal rule whenever a Sandstrom instruction is given, regardless of the conclusiveness of the evidence of intent.
Chapman recognized that jury trials involve an infinite variety of "facts and circumstances." It therefore is hardly in the interest of a rational criminal justice system to adopt automatic and absolute rules that deprive courts of perhaps the single most important element of judging: the exercise of judicial discretion. Yet this is precisely what the plurality's opinion does. Its holding would require reversals of convictions
Neither the respondent nor any of the four other participants in these crimes testified at the trial. The State's evidence — from the victim, the people who sheltered her after she escaped, the police, and the State's expert witnesses — was uncontradicted.
On these facts, a reviewing court might well say beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury found the presumption unnecessary to its task of determining intent. With respect to the charge of robbery, the uncontradicted evidence was that respondent stated: "We need a car, we are going to take your car . . . ." His actions confirmed his unequivocal statements: he overpowered the woman, took her car and never returned it. One would think that intent to rob could not have been clearer. The evidence of respondent's intent on the attempted murder charge could be viewed as only marginally less compelling. Having participated in a gang-type rape of this woman, respondent bound her hands with wire and threw her into an icy river in the middle of December.
The jury, consistent with its instructions, could have regarded these facts as dispositive of intent and not relied on the presumption. As indicated above, the court instructed the jury that the State had the burden of proving intent beyond a reasonable doubt. It stressed that "[t]he State, in other words, can sustain the burden resting on it only if the evidence before you establishes the existence of every element constituting the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt." App. 17A. Indeed, it prefaced the conclusive-presumption instruction by stating that intent is a question of fact solely within the province of the jury.
For the reasons stated, I think this Court properly could decide the question of harmless error. Normally, however, this is a question more appropriately left to the courts below. The Connecticut Supreme Court did not address the question, nor has it been briefed extensively here. There may be facts and circumstances not apparent from the record before us. I therefore would reverse the judgment and remand the case for consideration of whether the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Now, [no] one can look into a man's mind and see what his intention is. The only way to decide that question is to infer from the accused's conduct in the light of the surrounding circumstances. But as previously stated, every person is conclusively presumed to intend the natural and necessary consequences of his act." App. 25A.
The jury was told that if it believed the victim's testimony about respondent's conduct at the bridge, it might "presume [respondent] intended what would be the natural and necessary consequences of his actions, under the prevailing circumstances and conditions; for example, the temperature of air and water and the force used against her person." Ibid.
"I have already instructed you that what a man's intention has been is necessarily very largely a matter of inference. . . . The only way in which you can determine in a case such as this what a man's intention was at any given time is by determining what his conduct was and what the circumstances were surrounding that conduct and from those infer what his intention was.
"As stated before, to draw such an inference is not only the privilege but also the duty of a juror provided, of course, the inference to draw is a reasonable inference." Id., at 28A.
JUSTICE POWELL's dissent suggests that when "the character and quality" of the defendant's acts "are themselves dispositive of intent, the presumption becomes unnecessary to the jury's task of finding intent." Post, at 97. See also post, at 101 ("The jury, consistent with its instructions, could have regarded these facts as dispositive of intent and not relied on the presumption"). We agree that the presumption was "unnecessary" here, in the sense that the evidence was sufficient for a properly instructed jury to find that respondent acted with the requisite intent. A reviewing court cannot conclude beyond a reasonable doubt, however, that the jury based its finding of intent on that evidence. The jury might well have believed that respondent's acts, as a matter of law, were accompanied by the requisite intent.
"[Petitioner]: It appears that the Connecticut Supreme Court as a matter of federal constitutional law sometimes entertains the instruction — the challenge that the error was harmless and sometimes it does not. The only stated position that the Connecticut Supreme Court has given in this regard is the one in State against Truppi, is that we sometimes apply the harmless error rule. . . .
"QUESTION: Well, is it your position that they must apply it in every case?
"[Petitioner]: No, Your Honor, my position is not that they must apply the harmless error rule in every case, but if the prosecution asks the Connecticut Supreme Court to review an error for its harmlessness as a matter of federal constitutional law, that it must at least use the harmless error test.
"QUESTION: Let me just state it to be sure I understand it correctly. As a matter of federal constitutional law, a state supreme court must entertain a harmless — must make a harmless error examination every time the prosecutor asks it to.
"[Petitioner]: In the context of an unconstitutional jury instruction, yes."
This position is so clearly erroneous that it does not merit the Court's review by writ of certiorari.
Whether the Connecticut court's refusal to review the evidence in this case was based on a decision to follow its earlier holding in Truppi, or on its own conclusion that the error in the case before it was not harmless, the holding does not even arguably violate any federal rule.
Despite this standard, the plurality reasons that the error always is harmful because it remains possible that a juror might have relied on the unconstitutional presumption rather than the evidence. This argument begs the question. In every harmless-error case, there is always a possibility that the error affected the jury's verdict. As has been noted: "Obviously, there will be trials in which the evidence supporting the inference to be drawn will be so persuasive that any additional prompting procured by the [unconstitutional presumption] must be regarded as inconsequential. In such cases, the validity of the presumption will be regarded as irrelevant because whatever error it might embody can be regarded as harmless." Jeffries & Stephan, supra, at 1388, n. 192.
Chapman, however, makes clear that although some constitutional errors can never be treated as harmless, not "all trial errors which violate the Constitution automatically call for reversal." Ibid. The question — the one critical to the decision of this case — is in which category of error a Sandstrom instruction falls. In my view, it is not the type of error that invariably and "automatically" compels reversal. This is what the plurality today finds, subject to the rare situation in which the defendant "concedes" intent. The result of its opinion is to create a class of cases in which courts are deprived of their traditional discretion to see that both society and the defendant are treated justly. A Sandstrom error, however, is not comparable to an instruction that can never be harmless — for example, an instruction that fails to inform the jury that it must find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. See n. 3, supra. The question of intent is one of fact and, as discussed in the above text, before a jury even reaches the presumption instruction it must find facts that are a predicate for the presumption.
There was no "concession" of intent to kill in any of these cases. Yet intent in each is clear beyond a reasonable doubt. If a Sandstrom instruction had been given in any of these cases, the plurality opinion today would preclude consideration of the harmless-error doctrine.