421 U.S. 684 (1975), 74-13, Mullaney v. Wilbur

Docket Nº:No. 74-13
Citation:421 U.S. 684, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 44 L.Ed.2d 508
Party Name:Mullaney v. Wilbur
Case Date:June 09, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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421 U.S. 684 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 1881, 44 L.Ed.2d 508

Mullaney

v.

Wilbur

No. 74-13

United States Supreme Court

June 9, 1975

Argued January 15, 1975

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The State of Maine requires a defendant charged with murder, which upon conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment, to prove that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation in order to reduce the homicide to manslaughter, in which case the punishment is a fine or imprisonment not exceeding 20 years.

Held: The Maine rule does not comport with the requirement of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged, In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358. To satisfy that requirement, the prosecution in a homicide case in Maine must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the absence of the heat of passion on sudden provocation when the issue is properly presented. Pp. 691-704.

496 F.2d 1303, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 704.

POWELL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The State of Maine requires a defendant charged with murder to prove that he acted "in the heat of passion on sudden provocation" in order to reduce the homicide to

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manslaughter. We must decide whether this rule comports with the due process requirement, as defined in In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970), that the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged.

I

In June, 1966, a jury found respondent Stillman E. Wilbur, Jr., guilty of murder. The case against him rested on his own pretrial statement and on circumstantial evidence showing that he fatally assaulted Claude Hebert in the latter's hotel room. Respondent's statement, introduced by the prosecution, claimed that he had attacked Hebert in a frenzy provoked by Hebert's homosexual advance. The defense offered no evidence, but argued that the homicide was not unlawful, since respondent lacked criminal intent. Alternatively, Wilbur's counsel asserted that, at most, the homicide was manslaughter, rather than murder, since it occurred in the heat of passion provoked by the homosexual assault.

The trial court instructed the jury that Maine law recognizes two kinds of homicide, murder and manslaughter, and that these offenses are not subdivided into different degrees. The common elements of both are that the homicide be unlawful -- i.e., neither justifiable nor excusable1 -- and that it be intentional.2 The prosecution is required to prove these elements by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and only if they are

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so proved is the jury to consider the distinction between murder and manslaughter.

In view of the evidence, the trial court drew particular attention to the difference between murder and manslaughter. After reading the statutory definitions of both offenses,3 the court charged that "malice aforethought is an essential and indispensable element of the crime of murder," App. 40, without which the homicide would be manslaughter. The jury was further instructed, however, that, if the prosecution established that the homicide was both intentional and unlawful, malice aforethought was to be conclusively implied unless the defendant proved by a fair preponderance of the evidence that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation.4 The court emphasized that "malice aforethought

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and heat of passion on sudden provocation are two inconsistent things," id. at 62; thus, by proving the latter, the defendant would negate the former and reduce the homicide from murder to [95 S.Ct. 1884] manslaughter. The court then concluded its charge with elaborate definitions of "heat of passion"5 and "sudden provocation."6

After retiring to consider its verdict, the jury twice returned to request further instruction. It first sought reinstruction on the doctrine of implied malice aforethought, and later on the definition of "heat of passion." Shortly after the second reinstruction, the jury found respondent guilty of murder.

Respondent appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that he had been denied due process because he was required to negate the element of malice aforethought by proving that he had acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation. He claimed that, under Maine law, malice aforethought was an essential element of the crime of murder -- indeed, that it was the sole element distinguishing murder from manslaughter. Respondent contended, therefore, that this Court's decision in Winship requires the prosecution to prove the existence of that element beyond a reasonable doubt.

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The Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected this contention,7 holding that, in Maine, murder and manslaughter are not distinct crimes but, rather, different degrees of the single generic offense of felonious homicide. State v. Wilbur, 278 A.2d 139 (1971). The court further stated that, for more than a century, it repeatedly had held that the prosecution could rest on a presumption of implied malice aforethought, and require the defendant to prove that he had acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation in order to reduce murder to manslaughter. With respect to Winship, which was decided after respondent's trial,8 the court noted that it did not anticipate the application of the Winship principle to a factor such as the heat of passion on sudden provocation.

Respondent next successfully petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court. Wilbur v. Robbins, 349 F.Supp. 149 (Me.1972). The District Court ruled that, under the Maine statutes, murder and manslaughter are distinct offenses, not different degrees of a single offense. The court further held that

[m]alice aforethought is made the distinguishing element of the offense of murder, and it is expressly excluded as an element of the offense of manslaughter.

Id. at 153. Thus, the District Court concluded, Winship requires the prosecution to prove malice aforethought beyond a reasonable doubt; it cannot rely on a presumption of implied malice, which requires the defendant to prove that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation.

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The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed, subscribing in general to the District Court's analysis and construction of Maine law. 473 F.2d 943 (1973). Although recognizing that, "within broad limits, a state court must [95 S.Ct. 1885] be the one to interpret its own laws," the court nevertheless ruled that "a totally unsupportable construction which leads to an invasion of constitutional due process is a federal matter." Id. at 945. The Court of Appeals equated malice aforethought with "premeditation," id. at 947, and concluded that Winship requires the prosecution to prove this fact beyond a reasonable doubt.

Following this decision, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided the case of State v. Lafferty, 309 A.2d 647 (1973), in which it sharply disputed the First Circuit's view that it was entitled to make an independent determination of Maine law. The Maine court also reaffirmed its earlier opinion that murder and manslaughter are punishment categories of the single offense of felonious homicide. Accordingly, if the prosecution proves a felonious homicide the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation in order to receive the lesser penalty prescribed for manslaughter.9

In view of the Lafferty decision, we granted certiorari in this case and remanded to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration. 414 U.S. 1139 (1974). On

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remand, that court again applied Winship, this time to the Maine law as construed by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. 496 F.2d 1303 (1974). Looking to the "substance" of that law, the court found that the presence or absence of the heat of passion on sudden provocation results in significant differences in the penalties and stigma attaching to conviction. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals held that the principles enunciated in Winship control, and that, to establish murder, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in the heat of passion on sudden provocation.

Because of the importance of the issues presented, we again granted certiorari. 419 U.S. 823 (1974). We now affirm.

II

We reject at the outset respondent's position that we follow the analysis of the District Court and the initial opinion of the First Circuit, both of which held that murder and manslaughter are distinct crimes in Maine, and that malice aforethought is a fact essential to the former and absent in the latter. Respondent argues that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court's construction of state law should not be deemed binding on this Court, since it marks a radical departure from prior law,10 leads to internally

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inconsistent results, and in a transparent effort to circumvent Winship. This Court, however, repeatedly has held that state courts are the ultimate expositors of state law, see, e.g., Murdock v. City of Memphis, 20 Wall. 590 (1875); Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507 (1948), and that we are bound by their constructions except in extreme circumstances not present here.11 Accordingly, we accept as binding the Maine Supreme Judicial Court's construction of state homicide law.

III

The Maine law of homicide, as it bears on this case, can be stated succinctly: absent justification or excuse, all intentional or criminally reckless killings are felonious homicides. Felonious homicide is punished as murder -- i.e., by life imprisonment -- unless the defendant proves

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by a fair preponderance of the...

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