471 U.S. 307 (1985), 83-1590, Francis v. Franklin

Docket NºNo. 83-1590
Citation471 U.S. 307, 105 S.Ct. 1965, 85 L.Ed.2d 344, 53 U.S.L.W. 4495
Party NameFrancis v. Franklin
Case DateApril 29, 1985
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 307

471 U.S. 307 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 1965, 85 L.Ed.2d 344, 53 U.S.L.W. 4495

Francis

v.

Franklin

No. 83-1590

United States Supreme Court

April 29, 1985

Argued November 28, 1984

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE

ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent state prisoner, while attempting to escape after receiving treatment at a local dentist's office, shot and killed the resident of a nearby house with a stolen pistol when, at the moment the resident slammed the front door as respondent demanded the key to the resident's car, the pistol fired and a bullet pierced the door, hitting the resident in the chest. Respondent was tried in Georgia Superior Court on a charge of malice murder. His sole defense was a lack of the requisite intent to kill, claiming that the killing was an accident. The trial judge instructed the jury on the issue of intent as follows:

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. A person will not be presumed to act with criminal intention, but the trier of facts . . . may find criminal intention upon a consideration of the words, conduct, demeanor, motive and all of the circumstances connected with the act for which the accused is prosecuted.

The jury was also instructed that the respondent was presumed innocent and that the State was required to prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and respondent was sentenced to death. After an unsuccessful appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, and after exhausting state postconviction remedies, respondent sought habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court. That court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the jury charge on intent could have been interpreted by a reasonable juror as a mandatory presumption that shifted to respondent a burden of persuasion on the intent element of the offense, and accordingly violated the Fourteenth Amendment due process guarantees set forth in Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510.

Held: The instruction on intent, when read in the context of the jury charge as a whole, violated the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the State prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Sandstrom v. Montana, supra. Pp. 313-327.

(a) A jury instruction that creates a mandatory presumption whereby the jury must infer the presumed fact if the State proves certain predicate

Page 308

facts violates the Due Process Clause if it relieves the State of the burden of persuasion on an element of an offense. If a specific portion of the jury charge, considered in isolation, could reasonably have been understood as creating such a presumption, the potentially offending words must be considered in the context of the charge as a whole. Pp. 313-315.

(b) Here, a reasonable juror could have understood that the first two sentences of the instruction on intent created a mandatory presumption that shifted to respondent the burden of persuasion on the element of intent once the State had proved the predicate acts. The fact that the jury was informed that the presumption "may be rebutted" does not cure the infirmity in the charge, since, when combined with the immediately preceding language, the instruction could be read as telling the jury that it was required to infer intent to kill as a natural and probable consequence of the act of firing the pistol unless respondent persuaded the jury that such an inference was unwarranted. Pp. 315-318.

(c) The general instructions as to the prosecution's burden and respondent's presumption of innocence did not dissipate the error in the challenged portion of the instruction on intent, because such instructions are not necessarily inconsistent with language creating a mandatory presumption of intent. Nor did the more specific "criminal intention" instruction following the challenged sentences provide a sufficient corrective, since it may well be that it was not directed to the element of intent at all, but to another element of malice murder in Georgia -- the absence of provocation or justification. That is, a reasonable juror may well have thought that the instructions related to different elements of the crime, and were therefore not contradictory -- that he could presume intent to kill, but not the absence of provocation or justification. But even if a juror could have understood the "criminal intention" instruction as applying to the element of intent, that instruction did no more than contradict the immediately preceding instructions. Language that merely contradicts, and does not explain, a constitutionally infirm instruction does not suffice to absolve the infirmity. Pp. 318-325.

(d) Whether or not Sandstrom error can ever be harmless, the constitutional infirmity in this jury charge was not harmless error, because intent was plainly at issue, and was not overwhelmingly proved by the evidence. Pp. 325-326.

720 F.2d 1206 and 723 F.2d 770, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 327. REHNQUIST J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 331.

Page 309

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

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 (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 (1970).

I

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 fro the chain,

Page 310

[105 S.Ct. 1969] 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

Page 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 murder1 -- 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...

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