508 U.S. 275 (1993), 92-5129, Sullivan v. Louisiana

Docket Nº:No. 92-5129
Citation:508 U.S. 275, 113 S.Ct. 2078, 124 L.Ed.2d 182, 61 U.S.L.W. 4518
Party Name:Sullivan v. Louisiana
Case Date:June 01, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 275

508 U.S. 275 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 2078, 124 L.Ed.2d 182, 61 U.S.L.W. 4518

Sullivan

v.

Louisiana

No. 92-5129

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 1993

Argued March 29, 1993

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF LOUISIANA

Syllabus

The jury instructions in petitioner Sullivan's state court trial for first-degree murder included a definition of "reasonable doubt" that was essentially identical to the one held unconstitutional in Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39 (per curiam). The jury entered a verdict of guilty, and Sullivan was sentenced to death. In upholding the conviction on direct appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana held that the erroneous instruction was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Held: A constitutionally deficient reasonable doubt instruction cannot be harmless error. Pp. 277-282.

(a) Sullivan's Sixth Amendment right to jury trial was denied by the giving of a constitutionally deficient beyond a reasonable doubt instruction. The Fifth Amendment requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, see, e.g., In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, and the Sixth Amendment requirement that the jury, rather than the judge, reach the requisite finding of "guilty," are interrelated: the required jury verdict is a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court's opinion in Cage, which held that an instruction of the sort given here does not produce such a verdict, is controlling. Pp. 277-278.

(b) The giving of a constitutionally deficient reasonable doubt instruction is among those constitutional errors that require reversal of a conviction, rather than those that are amenable to harmless error analysis. See Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24. Consistent with the jury trial guarantee, Chapman instructs a reviewing court to consider the actual effect of the error on the guilty verdict in the case at hand. Since, in petitioner's case, there has been no jury verdict within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment, the premise for harmless error analysis is absent. Unlike an erroneous presumption regarding an element of the offense, see Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, a deficient reasonable doubt instruction vitiates all the jury's factual findings. A reviewing court in such a case can only engage in pure speculation -- its view of what a reasonable jury would have done. When it does that, the wrong entity judges the defendant guilty. Moreover, denial of the right to a jury verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the consequences of which are necessarily unquantifiable and indeterminate, is certainly a "structural defec[t] in the constitution of the trial mechanism, which def[ies] analysis by `harmless error' standards" under Arizona v.

Page 276

Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 309 (opinion of REHNQUIST, C.J., for the Court). Pp. 278-282.

596 So.2d 177 (La.1992), reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a concurring opinion.

The question presented is whether a constitutionally deficient reasonable doubt instruction may be harmless error.

I

Petitioner was charged with first-degree murder in the course of committing an armed robbery at a New Orleans bar. His alleged accomplice in the crime, a convicted felon named Michael Hillhouse, testifying at the trial pursuant to a grant of immunity, identified petitioner as the murderer. Although several other people were in the bar at the time of the robbery, only one testified at trial. This witness, who had been unable to identify either Hillhouse or petitioner at a physical lineup, testified that they committed the robbery, and that she saw petitioner hold a gun to the victim's head. There was other circumstantial evidence supporting the conclusion that petitioner was the triggerman. 596 So.2d 177, 180-181 (La.1992). In closing argument, defense counsel argued that there was reasonable doubt as to both the identity of the murderer and his intent.

Page 277

In his instructions to the jury, the trial judge gave a definition of "reasonable doubt" that was, as the State conceded below, essentially identical to the one held unconstitutional in Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39 (1990) (per curiam). See 596 So.2d at 185, and n. 3. The jury found petitioner guilty of first-degree murder, and subsequently recommended that he be sentenced to death. The trial court agreed. On direct appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana held, consistent with its opinion on remand from our decision in Cage, State v. Cage, 583 So.2d 1125, cert. denied, 502 U.S. 874 (1991), that the erroneous instruction was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. 596 So.2d at 186. It therefore upheld the conviction, though remanding for a new sentencing hearing because of ineffectiveness of counsel in the sentencing phase. We granted certiorari, 506 U.S. 939 (1992).

II

The Sixth Amendment provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury. . . ." In Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 149 (1968), we found this right to trial by jury in serious criminal cases to be "fundamental to the American scheme of justice," and therefore applicable in state proceedings. The right includes, of course, as its most important element, the right to have the jury, rather than the judge, reach the requisite finding of "guilty." See Sparf and Hansen v. United States, 156 U.S. 51, 105-106 (1895). Thus, although a judge may direct a verdict for the defendant if the evidence is legally insufficient to establish guilt, he may not direct a verdict for the State, no matter how overwhelming the evidence. Ibid. See also United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 572-573 (1977); Carpenters v. United States, 330 U.S. 395, 410 (1947).

What the factfinder must determine to return a verdict of guilty is prescribed by the Due Process Clause. The prosecution bears the burden of proving all elements of the offense

Page 278

charged, see, e.g., Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 210 (1977); Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 795 (1952), and must persuade the factfinder "beyond a reasonable doubt" of the facts necessary to establish each of those elements, see, e.g., In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970); Cool v. United States, 409 U.S. 100, 104 (1972) (per curiam). This beyond-a-reasonable-doubt requirement, which was adhered to by virtually all common law jurisdictions, applies in state, as well as federal, proceedings. Winship, supra.

It is self-evident, we think, that the Fifth Amendment requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the Sixth Amendment requirement of a jury verdict are interrelated. It would not satisfy the Sixth Amendment to have a jury determine that the defendant is probably guilty, and then leave it up to the judge to determine (as Winship requires) whether he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, the jury verdict required by the Sixth Amendment is a jury verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Our per curiam opinion in Cage, which we accept as controlling, held that an instruction of the sort given here does not produce such a verdict. * Petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to jury trial was therefore denied.

III

In Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), we rejected the view that all federal constitutional errors in the course of a criminal trial require reversal. We held that the

Page 279

Fifth Amendment violation of prosecutorial comment upon the defendant's failure to testify would not require reversal of the conviction if the State could show "beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained." Id. at 24. The Chapman standard recognizes that "certain constitutional errors, no less than other errors, may have been `harmless' in terms of their effect on the factfinding process at trial." Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 681 (1986). Although most constitutional errors have been held amenable to harmless error analysis, see Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 306-307 (1991) (opinion of REHNQUIST, C.J., for the Court) (collecting examples), some will always invalidate the conviction. Id. at 309-310 (citing, inter alia, Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) (total deprivation of the right to counsel); Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927) (trial by a biased judge); McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U.S. 168 (1984) (right to self-representation)). The question in the present case is to which category the present error belongs.

Chapman itself suggests the answer. Consistent with the jury trial guarantee, the question it instructs the reviewing court to consider is not what effect the constitutional error might generally be expected to have upon a...

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