460 U.S. 73 (1983), 81-927, Connecticut v. Johnson,

Docket Nº:No. 81-927
Citation:460 U.S. 73, 103 S.Ct. 969, 74 L.Ed.2d 823
Party Name:Connecticut v. Johnson,
Case Date:February 23, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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460 U.S. 73 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 969, 74 L.Ed.2d 823

Connecticut

v.

Johnson,

No. 81-927

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 23, 1983

Argued October 13, 1982

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF CONNECTICUT

Syllabus

Upon a jury trial in a Connecticut state court, respondent was convicted of all the charges under a multicount information, including charges of attempted murder and robbery. The trial court's general instructions to the jury included an instruction that

a person's intention may be inferred from his conduct and every person is conclusively presumed to intend the natural and necessary consequences of his act.

In specific instructions on the elements of each crime, the charge as to attempted murder again referred to a conclusive presumption of intent, but the instructions on robbery did not contain any further discussion of intent. While respondent's appeal was pending, this Court decided Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, which held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated by a jury instruction that "the law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts," because a reasonable juror might have viewed it as creating a conclusive presumption of intent or as shifting [103 S.Ct. 971] the burden of proof as to intent. Sandstrom left open the question whether, if a jury is so instructed, the error can ever be harmless. Thereafter, the Connecticut Supreme Court, while affirming respondent's convictions on other counts in the information, reversed his convictions for attempted murder and robbery. Without discussing the State's argument that the Sandstrom violation was harmless, the court concluded that the unconstitutional "conclusive presumption" language in the general instructions was not cured by the specific instructions on attempted murder and robbery.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. 185 Conn.163, 440 A.2d 858, affirmed.

JUSTICE BLACKMUN, joined by JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE MARSHALL, concluded that the instructional error deprived respondent of "constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error," Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 23. No matter how strong the prosecution's evidence, a reviewing court cannot find beyond a reasonable doubt that a Sandstrom error did not contribute to the jury's verdict. A trial judge may not direct a jury to return a guilty verdict regardless of how overwhelmingly the evidence may point in that direction, and a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent is the functional equivalent of a directed verdict on that issue. Respondent's jurors reasonably could have

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interpreted the instructions as requiring a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent, an element of the crimes charged, leading them to ignore the evidence -- including evidence relating to respondent's apparent defense that he intended to borrow, rather than steal, the victim's car, and that he did not intend to kill the victim -- in finding that the State had proved respondent guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If so, a reviewing court cannot hold that the error did not contribute to the verdict, since the fact that the reviewing court may view the evidence of intent as overwhelming is irrelevant. While 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 -- such as where, by raising a particular defense or by his other actions, the defendant himself has taken the issue of intent from the jury -- such an exception, regardless of its boundaries, does not apply here. Pp. 81-88.

JUSTICE STEVENS concluded that no federal question was raised by the Connecticut Supreme Court's refusal to consider whether the Sandstrom error here was harmless, and that therefore the writ of certiorari should simply be dismissed. However, because a fifth vote was necessary to authorize the entry of a Court judgment, he joined the disposition allowing the Connecticut Supreme Court's judgment to stand. Pp. 88-90.

BLACKMUN, J., announced the judgment of the Court, and delivered an opinion, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 88. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 90. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 90.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

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

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that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." Id. at 512. We expressly left open in that case the question whether, if a jury is so instructed, the error can ever be harmless. Id. at 526-527. Since Sandstrom, courts have taken different approaches to the harmless error problem.1 We therefore granted certiorari in this litigation to resolve the conflict. 455 U.S. 937 (1982).

I

A

Respondent Lindsay B. Johnson was accused in a four-count 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

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in Norwalk, Conn. A young woman who had lost her way stopped her car and asked them for directions. Respondent offered to ride with her to show her the way. She agreed, and the two drove off. Respondent's companions followed in the other car.

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 [103 S.Ct. 972] 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

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into the river when she saw respondent pursuing her. She then eluded respondent by hiding under the bridge; she was able to untie her hands. She remained hidden for a while because she heard voices shouting, but eventually she sought refuge from the cold.2 Shortly after 4 a.m., the residents of a nearby house admitted her when they heard her moaning, "please let me in . . . they were trying to kill me." Id. at 390.

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,3 describing him as the most vicious and violent of her assailants.

The defense theory, as indicated by the cross-examination of the State's witnesses,4 apparently was that the woman had consented to travel with the group and to have sex with them, and that respondent did not plan to keep the woman's car or to kill her. For example, respondent's attorney asked the woman whether any mention had been made of going to a motel or having sex, whether she had consented to the sexual acts, and whether any of the men had said that the car would be returned in the morning with a full tank of gas. When the

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woman stated that she was behind the wheel after the car became stuck in a snowbank on the turnpike, counsel asked how many of the men had got out of the car to push it or, indeed, whether all of them had done so. Cross-examination also revealed that, when the woman went to the hospital on December 21, she told the examining physician that she had had sexual relations with her boyfriend the previous morning. According to the doctor, this might have accounted for sperm observed in gynecological tests. Finally, police descriptions [103 S.Ct. 973] of the bridge were arguably contrary to the victim's description of the area as "secluded."

B

The trial court's charge to the jury began with general instructions on applicable principles of law. The...

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