Cooper v. State of N.C., 82-6293

Decision Date10 March 1983
Docket NumberNo. 82-6293,82-6293
Citation702 F.2d 481
PartiesAlbert COOPER, Appellant, v. STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA, Samuel P. Garrison, Warden, Central Prison, Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Norman B. Smith, Greensboro, N.C. (Smith, Patterson, Follin, Curtis, James & Harkavy, Greensboro, N.C., on brief), for appellant.

Richard N. League, Sp. Deputy Atty. Gen., Raleigh, N.C. (Rufus L. Edmisten, Atty. Gen., of North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C., on brief), for appellees.

Before WINTER, Chief Judge, ERVIN, Circuit Judge, and HAYNSWORTH, Senior Circuit Judge.

ERVIN, Circuit Judge:

Albert Cooper challenges the constitutionality of his incarceration by the state of North Carolina after his felony conviction in state court. The district court denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus and this court granted a certificate of probable cause. We now affirm.


On December 2, 1971, Cooper was discovered by a policeman in a bowling alley in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He was behaving in a peculiar manner and was taken to a local hospital, where he told a nurse that he had "destroyed" his wife and children and made irrational statements to the nurse and to other hospital personnel. That same evening police entered Cooper's apartment and found the bodies of his wife and four children, who had been brutally murdered.

Cooper was admitted to a state mental hospital and charged with the murders of his family. After being shuttled between hospital and court for several months, he finally was found competent to stand trial, although it was considered necessary by his doctor to keep him under medication during the trial in order to keep his mental illness in remission.

Cooper pled not guilty to five counts of first degree murder. His evidence at trial went toward showing his mental illness, and was largely corroborated by the state's evidence. Indeed, the state has not contended at any point in Cooper's odyssey that Cooper is not suffering from mental illness, but only that he was not legally insane when he committed the murders, and was legally competent to stand trial.

The trial judge instructed the jury that it could return verdicts of guilty of first degree murder, guilty of second degree murder, not guilty by reason of insanity, or not guilty. He distinguished the two degrees of murder and described their respective elements in accord with North Carolina law at the time. 1 The judge repeatedly informed the jury that the state had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt all the elements of the crime, including (for first degree murder) specific intent to kill, premeditation, and deliberation. The judge further instructed the jury that Cooper had the burden of proving to the jury's satisfaction that he was legally insane at the time of the murders. He did not tell the jurors specifically that evidence of Cooper's mental illness could be considered with regard to the elements of specific intent, premeditation, and deliberation, although he did state generally that their decision as to the existence vel non of a reasonable doubt should be "based on reason and common sense arising out of some or all of the evidence."

The jury found Cooper guilty of first degree murder on all counts, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed Cooper's conviction over a strong dissent by Chief Justice Sharp, who argued that Cooper was entitled to a specific jury instruction that evidence of his paranoid schizophrenia was to be considered in determining whether the state had proven specific intent, premeditation, and deliberation. State v. Cooper, 286 N.C. 549, 213 S.E.2d 305, 334-35 (N.C.1975) (Sharp, C.J., dissenting).


Cooper maintains before this court only one ground for habeas relief: the claim of entitlement to a specific jury instruction that evidence of his mental illness be taken into account in determining the state's success in proving specific intent, premeditation, and deliberation. A jury charge which compels or even invites reasonable jurors to accept an unconstitutional view of the law vitiates a defendant's conviction and can never be harmless error. Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, 526, 99 S.Ct. 2450, 2460, 61 L.Ed.2d 39 (1979). However, when reviewing a charge for constitutional infirmity, the court is required to look at the charge "in its entirety," not just at the challenged parts. Reeves v. Reed, 596 F.2d 628, 629 (4th Cir.1979). While a charge which is correct viewed in its entirety will be upheld ordinarily despite the existence of misstatements of law, internal self-contradiction may render it invalid.

First instructing the jury in one way and then in another ... requires reversal for a new trial ... "If a charge to a jury, considered in its entirety, correctly states the law, the incorrectness of one paragraph or one phrase standing alone ordinarily does not constitute reversible error; but it is otherwise if two instructions are in direct conflict and one is clearly prejudical, for the jury might have followed the erroneous instructions."

United States v. Walker, 677 F.2d 1014, 1016 n. 3 (4th Cir.1982), quoting McFarland v. United States, 174 F.2d 538, 539 (D.C.Cir.1949).

In collateral review of a jury charge, the court can grant relief only if a stringent standard is met by the petitioner: that of demonstrating that "the offending instruction is so oppressive as to render a trial fundamentally unfair." Adkins v. Bordenkircher, 517 F.Supp. 390, 399 (S.D.W.Va.1981), aff'd, 674 F.2d 279 (4th Cir.1982). 2 The Supreme Court recently stated, in a case in which the petitioner's claim, like Cooper's, was that an omission in the jury charge constituted error, that

[t]he burden of demonstrating that an erroneous instruction was so prejudicial that it will support a collateral attack on the constitutional validity of a state court's judgment is even greater than the showing required to establish plain error on direct appeal. The question in such a collateral proceeding is "whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process," Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. [141, 94 S.Ct. 396, 400, 38 L.Ed.2d 368] 147 [ (1973) ], not merely whether "the instruction is undesirable, erroneous, or even 'universally condemned,' " id. at 146 . In this case, the respondent's burden is especially heavy because no erroneous instruction was given; his claim of prejudice is based on the failure to give any explanation beyond the reading of the statutory language itself of the causation element. An omission, or an incomplete instruction, is less likely to be prejudicial than a misstatement of the law.

Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 154-155, 97 S.Ct. 1730, 1736, 52 L.Ed.2d 203 (1977) (parallel citations omitted). It is apparent that to afford Cooper relief this court must find that he has carried a very heavy burden of persuasion.


Cooper's primary objection 3 to the trial judge's jury instructions is the latter's failure to instruct the jury to consider evidence about Cooper's mental illness with regard to the elements of specific intent, premeditation, and deliberation of the crime of first degree murder. This, according to Cooper, in effect shifted to him the burden of disproving those elements of the crime.

It is clear that a state may make insanity an affirmative defense to be proven by the defendant, see Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 205, 97 S.Ct. 2319, 2324, 53 L.Ed.2d 281 (1977), and may rely on a presumption of sanity in proving its case-in-chief in a criminal prosecution, see Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 702 n. 31, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 1891 n. 31, 44 L.Ed.2d 508 (1975). It is equally clear that the state...

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