414 U.S. 141 (1973), 72-1148, Cupp v. Naughten

Docket NºNo. 72-1148
Citation414 U.S. 141, 94 S.Ct. 396, 38 L.Ed.2d 368
Party NameCupp v. Naughten
Case DateDecember 04, 1973
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

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414 U.S. 141 (1973)

94 S.Ct. 396, 38 L.Ed.2d 368




No. 72-1148

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 4, 1973

Argued October 16, 1973




At respondent's Oregon criminal trial, the trial judge charged, in accordance with a state statutory provision:

Every witness is presumed to speak the truth. This presumption may be overcome by the manner in which the witness testifies, by the nature of his or her testimony, by evidence affecting his or her character, interest, or motives, by contradictory evidence or by a presumption.

Respondent was convicted and, following exhaustion of his state remedies, brought this federal habeas corpus action. The Court of Appeals, reversing the District Court, concluded that the "presumption of truthfulness" instruction placed the burden of proving innocence upon the defendant, and thus did not comport with due process.

Held: The instruction cannot be considered in isolation, and, when viewed, as it must be, in the context of the overall charge, in which the trial court twice gave explicit instructions affirming the presumption of innocence and declaring the State's obligation to prove guilt beyond [94 S.Ct. 398] a reasonable doubt, did not so infect the entire trial that the resulting conviction violated the requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the challenged instruction having neither shifted the burden of proof to the defendant nor negated the presumption of innocence accorded under state law. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, distinguished. Pp. 144 150.

476 F.2d 845, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 150.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Naughten was tried in an Oregon state court for the crime of armed robbery. The State's principal evidence consisted of testimony by the owner of the grocery store that respondent had robbed the store at gunpoint and of corroborative testimony by another eyewitness. In addition, two police officers testified that respondent had been found near the scene of the robbery and that the stolen money was located near his car in a neighboring parking lot. A few items of clothing, identified as belonging to respondent, and the stolen money were also introduced. Respondent neither took the stand himself nor called any witnesses to testify in his behalf.

The trial judge charged the jury that respondent was presumed innocent "until guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt," and then continued:

Every witness is presumed to speak the truth. This presumption may be overcome by the manner in which the witness testifies, by the nature of his or her testimony, by evidence affecting his or her character, interest, or motives, by contradictory evidence, or by a presumption.

App. 16.

The trial judge also instructed the jury as to the State's burden of proof, defining in detail the concept of reasonable doubt; later, at the respondent's request, he gave an additional instruction on the presumption

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of innocence.1 The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and respondent was sentenced to a term in the state penitentiary.

The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed respondent's conviction, finding that inclusion of the "presumption of truthfulness" instruction in the judge's charge to the jury was not error. The Supreme Court of Oregon denied a petition for review. His state remedies thus exhausted, respondent sought federal habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, asserting that the "presumption of truthfulness" charge shifted the State's burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and forced respondent instead to prove his innocence. The District Court noted that similar instructions had met with disfavor in the federal courts of appeals, but observed that "[those] cases [did] not involve appeals from State Court convictions." Recognizing that the instruction was "proper under Oregon law," the District Court stated:

In any event, the giving of the instruction did not deprive petitioner of a federally protected constitutional right.2

[94 S.Ct. 399] The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.3 That court, noting that the instruction in question "has

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been almost universally condemned"4 and that Naughten had not testified or called witnesses in his own behalf, went on to say:

Thus, the clear effect of the challenged instruction was to place the burden on Naughten to prove his innocence. This is so repugnant to the American concept that it is offensive to any fair notion of due process of law.

476 F.2d 845, 847.

We granted certiorari to consider whether the giving of this instruction in a state criminal trial so offended established notions of due process as to deprive the respondent of a constitutionally fair trial.

Although the "presumption of truthfulness" instruction apparently became increasingly used in federal criminal prosecutions following the publication of Judge Mathes' Jury Instructions and Forms for Federal Criminal Cases, 27 F.R.D. 39, 67 (1961),5 the instruction appears to have had quite an independent origin in Oregon practice. The instruction given in Naughten's trial was directly based on § 44.370 of the Oregon Revised

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Statutes, a provision first passed in 1862. Only four years ago, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the validity of the instruction against constitutional attack. State v. Kessler, 254 Ore. 124, 458 P.2d 432 (1969). At that time the court noted the extensive criticism of similar instructions in the federal courts of appeals and the possible effect of such instructions on the presumption of innocence. Nonetheless, though the court stated that

it might be preferable not to instruct the jury in criminal cases where defendant does not take the stand that a witness is presumed to speak the truth,

it concluded that there was no error in giving the instruction "if accompanied by an explanation of how the presumption can be overcome." Id. at 128, 458 P.2d at 435. The Oregon Court of Appeals followed that holding in affirming respondent's conviction in this case.

The criticism of the instruction by the federal courts has been based on the idea that the instruction may "dilute," "conflict with," "seem to collide with," or "impinge upon" a criminal defendant's presumption of innocence;6 "clash with" or "shift" the prosecution's burden of proof;7 or "interfere" with or "invade" the province of the jury to determine credibility.8 In fact, in some cases, the courts of appeals have determined that a "presumption of truthfulness" instruction is so undesirable that the defendant may [94 S.Ct. 400] be entitled to a new trial on that ground alone.9 A reading of these cases, however, indicates

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that the courts of appeals were primarily concerned with directing inferior courts within the same jurisdiction to refrain from giving the instruction because it was thought confusing, of little positive value to the jury, or simply undesirable. The appellate courts were, in effect, exercising the so-called supervisory power of an appellate court to review proceedings of trial courts and to reverse judgments of such courts which the appellate court concludes were wrong.

Within such a unitary jurisdictional framework, the appellate court will, of course, require the trial court to conform to constitutional mandates, but it may likewise require it to follow procedures deemed desirable from the viewpoint of sound judicial practice, although in nowise commanded by statute or by the Constitution. Thus, even substantial unanimity among federal courts of appeals that the instruction in question ought not to be given in United States district courts within their respective jurisdictions is not, without more, authority for declaring that the giving of the instruction makes a resulting conviction invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment. Before a federal court may overturn a conviction resulting from a state trial in which this instruction was used, it must be established not merely that the instruction is undesirable, erroneous, or even "universally condemned," but that it violated some right which was guaranteed to the defendant by the Fourteenth Amendment.

In determining the effect of this instruction on the validity of respondent's conviction, we accept at the outset the well established proposition that a single instruction

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to a jury may not be judged in artificial isolation, but must be viewed in the context of the overall charge. Boyd v. United States, 271 U.S. 104, 107 (1926). While this does not mean that an instruction by itself may never rise to the level of constitutional error, see Cool v. United States, 409 U.S. 100 (1972), it does recognize that a judgment of conviction is commonly the culmination of a trial which includes testimony of witnesses, argument of counsel, receipt of exhibits in evidence, and instruction of the jury by the judge. Thus, not only is the challenged instruction but one of many such instructions, but the process of instruction itself is but one of several components of the trial which may result in the judgment of conviction.

The Court of Appeals in this case stated that the effect of the instruction was to place the burden on respondent to prove his innocence. But the trial court gave, not once, but twice, explicit instructions affirming the presumption of innocence and declaring the obligation of the State to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeals, recognizing that these other instructions had been given, nevertheless declared that "there was no...

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