Robert FRANCIS, Warden, Petitioner
Raymond Lee FRANKLIN
Supreme Court of the United States
471 U.S. 307, 105 S.Ct. 1965 (1985)
Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case requires that we decide whether certain jury instructions in a criminal prosecution in which intent is an element of the crime charged and the only contested issue at trial satisfy the principles of Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, 99 S.Ct. 2450, 61 L.Ed.2d 39 (1979). Specifically, we must evaluate jury instructions stating that: (1) "[t]he acts of a person of sound mind and discretion are presumed to be the product of the person's will, but the presumption may be rebutted" and (2) "[a] person of sound mind and discretion is presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of his acts but the presumption may be rebutted." App. 8a-9a. The question is whether these instructions, when read in the context of the jury charge as a whole, violate the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the State prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. See Sandstrom, supra; In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 1072, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970).
Respondent Raymond Lee Franklin, then 21 years old and imprisoned for offenses unrelated to this case, sought to escape custody on January 17, 1979, while he and three other prisoners were receiving dental care at a local dentist's office. The four prisoners were secured by handcuffs to the same 8-foot length of chain as they sat in the dentist's waiting room. At some point Franklin was released from the chain, [p. 310] taken into the dentist's office and given preliminary treatment, and then escorted back to the waiting room. As another prisoner was being released, Franklin, who had not been reshackled, seized a pistol from one of the two officers and managed to escape. He forced the dentist's assistant to accompany him as a hostage.
In the parking lot Franklin found the dentist's automobile, the keys to which he had taken before escaping, but was unable to unlock the door. He then fled with the dental assistant after refusing her request to be set free. The two set out across an open clearing and came upon a local resident. Franklin demanded this resident's car. When the resident responded that he did not own one, Franklin made no effort to harm him but continued with the dental assistant until they came to the home of the victim, one Collie. Franklin pounded on the heavy wooden front door of the home and Collie, a retired 72- year-old carpenter, answered. Franklin was pointing the stolen pistol at the door when Collie arrived. As Franklin demanded his car keys, Collie slammed the door. At this moment Franklin's gun went off. The bullet traveled through the wooden door and into Collie's chest killing him. Seconds later the gun fired again. The second bullet traveled upward through the door and into the ceiling of the residence.
Hearing the shots, the victim's wife entered the front room. In the confusion accompanying the shooting, the dental assistant fled and Franklin did not attempt to stop her. Franklin entered the house, demanded the car keys from the victim's wife, and added the threat "I might as well kill you." When she did not provide the keys, however, he made no effort to thwart her escape. Franklin then stepped outside and encountered the victim's adult daughter. He repeated his demand for car keys but made no effort to stop the daughter when she refused the demand and fled. Failing to obtain a car, Franklin left and remained at large until nightfall.
Shortly after being captured, Franklin made a formal statement
to the authorities in which he admitted that he had [p. 311] shot the victim
but emphatically denied that he did so voluntarily or intentionally.
He claimed that the shots were fired in accidental response to the slamming
of the door. He was tried in the Superior Court of Bibb County, Georgia,
on charges of malice murder [n. 1]--a capital offense in Georgia--and kidnaping.
His sole defense to the malice murder charge was a lack of the requisite
intent to kill. To support his version of the events Franklin offered
substantial circumstantial evidence tending to show a lack of intent.
He claimed that the circumstances surrounding the firing of the gun, particularly
the slamming of the door and the trajectory of the second bullet, supported
the hypothesis of accident, and that his immediate confession to that effect
buttressed the assertion. He also argued that his treatment of every
other person encountered during the escape indicated a lack of disposition
to use force.
1. The malice murder statute at the time in question provided:On the dispositive issue of intent, the trial judge instructed the jury as follows:
"A person commits murder when he unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, causes the death of another human being.... Malice shall be implied where no considerable provocation appears and where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart." Ga.Code Ann. § 26-1101(a) (1978).
* * *
* * *
Franklin levels his constitutional attack at the following two
sentences in the jury charge: "The acts of a person of sound mind
and discretion are presumed to be the product of the person's will, but
the presumption may be rebutted. A person of sound mind and discretion
is presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of his acts
but the presumption may be rebutted." App. 8a-9a. [n. 4] .
. . . The federal constitutional question is whether a reasonable juror
could have understood the two sentences as a mandatory presumption that
shifted to the defendant the burden of persuasion on the element of intent
once the State had proved the predicate acts.
4. Intent to kill is an element of the offense of malice murder in Georgia. See Patterson v. State, 239 Ga. 409, 416-417, 238 S.E.2d 2, 8 (1977).The challenged sentences are cast in the language of command. They instruct the jury that "acts of a person of sound mind and discretion are presumed to be the product of the person's will," and that a person "is presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of his acts," App. 8a- 9a (emphasis added). These words carry precisely the message of the language condemned in Sandstrom, 442 U.S., at 515, 99 S.Ct., at 2454 (" 'The law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts' "). The jurors "were not told that they had a choice, or that they might infer that conclusion; they were told only that the law presumed it. It is clear that a reasonable juror could easily have viewed such an instruction as mandatory." Ibid. (emphasis added). The portion of the jury charge challenged in this case directs the jury to presume an essential element of the offense--intent to kill--upon proof of other elements of the offense--the act of slaying another. In this way the instructions "undermine the factfinder's responsibility at trial, based on evidence adduced by the State, to find the ultimate facts beyond a reasonable doubt." Ulster County Court v. Allen, supra, 442 U.S., at 156, 99 S.Ct., at 2224 (emphasis added).
The language challenged here differs from Sandstrom, of course, in that the jury in this case was explicitly informed that the presumptions "may be rebutted." App. 8a-9a. The State makes much of this additional aspect of the instruction in seeking to differentiate the present case from Sandstrom. This distinction does not suffice, however, to cure the infirmity in the charge. Though the Court in Sandstrom [p. 317] acknowledged that the instructions there challenged could have been reasonably understood as creating an irrebuttable presumption, 442 U.S., at 517, 99 S.Ct., at 2455, it was not on this basis alone that the instructions were invalidated. Had the jury reasonably understood the instructions as creating a mandatory rebuttable presumption the instructions would have been no less constitutionally infirm. Id., at 520-524, 99 S.Ct., at 2457-2459.
An irrebuttable or conclusive presumption relieves the State of its burden of persuasion by removing the presumed element from the case entirely if the State proves the predicate facts. A mandatory rebuttable presumption does not remove the presumed element from the case if the State proves the predicate facts, but it nonetheless relieves the State of the affirmative burden of persuasion on the presumed element by instructing the jury that it must find the presumed element unless the defendant persuades the jury not to make such a finding. A mandatory rebuttable presumption is perhaps less onerous from the defendant's perspective, but it is no less unconstitutional. Our cases make clear that "[s]uch shifting of the burden of persuasion with respect to a fact which the State deems so important that it must be either proved or presumed is impermissible under the Due Process Clause." Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S., at 215, 97 S.Ct., at 2329. In Mullaney v. Wilbur we explicitly held unconstitutional a mandatory rebuttable presumption that shifted to the defendant a burden of persuasion on the question of intent. 421 U.S., at 698-701, 95 S.Ct., at 1889-1890. And in Sandstrom we similarly held that instructions that might reasonably have been understood by the jury as creating a mandatory rebuttable presumption were unconstitutional. 442 U.S., at 524, 99 S.Ct., at 2459.
[p. 318] When combined with the immediately preceding mandatory language, the instruction that the presumptions "may be rebutted" could reasonably be read as telling the jury that it was required to infer intent to kill as the natural and probable consequence of the act of firing the gun unless the defendant persuaded the jury that such an inference was unwarranted. The very statement that the presumption "may be rebutted" could have indicated to a reasonable juror that the defendant bore an affirmative burden of persuasion once the State proved the underlying act giving rise to the presumption. Standing alone, the challenged language undeniably created an unconstitutional burden- shifting presumption with respect to the element of intent.
The jury, of course, did not hear only the two challenged sentences. The jury charge taken as a whole might have [p. 319] explained the proper allocation of burdens with sufficient clarity that any ambiguity in the particular language challenged could not have been understood by a reasonable juror as shifting the burden of persuasion. See Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 94 S.Ct. 396, 38 L.Ed.2d 368 (1973). The State argues that sufficient clarifying language exists in this case. In particular, the State relies on an earlier portion of the charge instructing the jurors that the defendant was presumed innocent and that the State was required to prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The State also points to the sentence immediately following the challenged portion of the charge, which reads: "[a] person will not be presumed to act with criminal intention...." App. 9a.
As we explained in Sandstrom, general instructions on the State's burden of persuasion and the defendant's presumption of innocence are not "rhetorically inconsistent with a conclusive or burden-shifting presumption," because "[t]he jury could have interpreted the two sets of instructions as indicating that the presumption was a means by which proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to intent could be satisfied." 442 U.S., at 518-519, n. 7, 99 S.Ct., at 2456, n. 7. In light of the instructions on intent given in this case, a reasonable juror could thus have thought that, although intent must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, proof of the firing of the gun and its ordinary consequences constituted proof of intent beyond a reasonable doubt unless the defendant persuaded the jury otherwise. Cf. Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S., at 703, n. 31, 95 S.Ct., at 1891, n. 31. These [p. 320] general instructions as to the prosecution's burden and the defendant's presumption of innocence do not dissipate the error in the challenged portion of the instructions.
* * *
Sandstrom v. Montana made clear that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State from making use of jury instructions that have the effect of relieving the State of the burden of proof enunciated in Winship on the critical question of intent in a criminal prosecution. 442 U.S., at 521, 99 S.Ct., at 2457. Today we reaffirm the rule of Sandstrom and the wellspring due process principle from which it was drawn. The Court of Appeals faithfully [p. 327] and correctly applied this rule, and the court's judgment is therefore
Justice REHNQUIST, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice O'CONNOR join, dissenting.
In In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970), the trial judge in a bench trial held that although the State's proof was sufficient to warrant a finding of guilt by a preponderance of the evidence, it was not sufficient to warrant such a finding beyond a reasonable doubt. The outcome of the case turned on which burden of proof was to be imposed on the prosecution. This Court held that the Constitution requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal case, and Winship's adjudication was set aside.
Today the Court sets aside Franklin's murder conviction, but not because either the trial judge or the trial jury found that his guilt had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The conviction is set aside because this Court concludes that one or two sentences out of several pages of instructions given by the judge to the jury could be read as allowing the jury to return a guilty verdict in the absence of proof establishing every statutory element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court reaches this result even though the judge admonished the jury at least four separate times that they could convict only if they found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court, instead of examining the charge to the jury as a whole, seems bent on piling syllogism on [p. 332] syllogism to prove that someone might understand a few sentences in the charge to allow conviction on less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Such fine parsing of the jury instructions given in a state-court trial is not required by anything in the United States Constitution.
* * *