Murphy v. Holland, 84-6526

Citation776 F.2d 470
Decision Date28 October 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-6526,84-6526
PartiesKenneth E. MURPHY, Appellant, v. Manfred HOLLAND, Warden, WV Penitentiary, Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)

J. Bradley Russell, Asst. Atty. Gen., Charleston, W.Va. (Charles Brown, Atty. Gen., Charleston, W.Va., on brief), for appellee.

Before PHILLIPS, MURNAGHAN and ERVIN, Circuit Judges.

ERVIN, Circuit Judge:

The petitioner, Kenneth E. Murphy, appeals from the district court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Murphy first argues that a jury instruction defining reasonable doubt given at his 1980 trial in the Circuit Court of Braxton County, West Virginia violated his right to due

process by unconstitutionally lessening the State's burden of proving his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Murphy also asserts that the admission of inculpatory statements made by him to the police violated his sixth amendment right to counsel and his fifth amendment protection against compulsory self-incrimination. Although disturbed by what we believe were unnecessary and probably unwise jury instructions on reasonable doubt, we cannot conclude that they deprived Murphy of his constitutionally safeguarded right to a fair trial. We also find that Murphy's fifth and sixth amendment rights were not compromised by the admission of his confessionary statements. Accordingly, we affirm denial of the writ.

I. Procedural History

On March 6, 1980, Murphy was convicted in the Circuit Court of Braxton County, West Virginia, of first degree murder for fatally shooting Patricia Dennison. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with parole eligibility. Some three years later, on February 3rd and May 20th, 1983, Murphy's attorney filed a direct appeal and an amended petition for appeal in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. On that appeal, Murphy's most substantial allegations of error consisted of the same fifth and sixth amendment claims he now asserts entitle him to federal habeas corpus relief. The appeal was promptly denied without opinion. Murphy next proceeded pro se and in forma pauperis by petitioning the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals for a writ of habeas corpus on July 7, 1983. Murphy's writ was denied on October 13, 1983.

Continuing to press his constitutional claims, Murphy petitioned the district court for federal habeas corpus relief on February 17, 1984. The case was referred to a federal magistrate who recommended denial of Murphy's habeas corpus petition. On July 31, 1984, the district court adopted the magistrate's recommendation and denied the writ.

II. Factual Background

Sometime on January 9, 1980, Patricia Dennison was fatally shot with a 20-gauge shotgun at her home. The shot was fired in a downward angle from behind and the bullet entered her head slightly in front of the right ear. The actual cause of death was asphyxiation resulting from the complete occlusion of Dennison's breathing passages by the blood, tissue, and shotgun pellets that had lodged in her throat following the shotgun blast. Although Murphy admitted at trial that only he and his infant son were in Dennison's house when the shooting occurred, 1 he argued that Dennison had committed suicide by shooting herself. However, the angle of the shot and location of the bullet wound eliminated suicide as a possible cause of Dennison's fatal wounding.

The apparent motivation behind the shooting was Murphy's desire to prevent Dennison from informing the police that he had stolen her $254.00 welfare check. Dennison's daughter testified that during an argument a few days before the murder she heard her mother say to Murphy: "I know you know where my check is and what happened to it." (JA 548). The check was cashed on January 2, 1980, and it contained apparent endorsements from Murphy and Dennison. A handwriting expert testified, however, that Murphy had forged Dennison's signature.

Nevertheless, the most condemning evidence against Murphy consisted of two extremely inculpatory statements he made to the police. After waiving his Miranda rights, Murphy partially confessed: "I admit I stold [sic] the check out of the mail box and cashed it, but I didn't kill her." (JA 730). Later, Murphy blurted out a Mr. Murphy mumbled something, which I believed him to say 'He didn't do it, I did.' I then asked Mr. Murphy to repeat what he said and he replied, 'Alright, I did it, Dana didn't have anything to do with it.'

complete confession to the police only seconds after he had identified Dana Cutright as the one who killed Dennison. According to Deputy Robinson of the Braxton County Sheriff's Department:

(JA 734). After finding that Murphy had validly waived his Miranda rights before these statements were made, the trial court admitted them into evidence over Murphy's objection. In addition to challenging the jury instructions on reasonable doubt, Murphy claims that the admission of these inculpatory statements violated his right to counsel under the fifth and sixth amendments.

III. Reasonable Doubt Jury Instructions

Once again, we are called upon to determine the propriety of a trial court's jury instruction on reasonable doubt under the fifth amendment's ubiquitous shield of due process which embodies the fundamental notion that an accused is presumed innocent until the state proves his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Though our decisions reflect a clear and consistent disapproval of efforts to define reasonable doubt, 2 trial courts have repeatedly expressed their unwillingness to dispense with their traditional practice of charging the jury on reasonable doubt. Whether trial courts have overlooked the plain message of our decisions or are perhaps inseparably wedded to the unfortunate tradition of instructing the jury on reasonable doubt we cannot say.

But in the sanguine hope that some trial courts may someday heed our suggestions, trial courts are again urged to adopt what we think is the better practice by declining to define reasonable doubt in their jury instructions. Moss, 756 F.2d at 333. The term reasonable doubt itself has a self-evident meaning comprehensible to the lay juror. That subjective meaning is hardly susceptible to significant improvement by judicial efforts to define reasonable doubt with unattainable precision. Instead of improvement, the most likely outcome of attempts to define reasonable doubt is unnecessary confusion and a constitutionally impermissible lessening of the required standard of proof. Id.; United States v. Gibson, 726 F.2d 869, 874 (1st Cir.1984). To protect the accused's due process rights and avoid supplying the grounds for unnecessary constitutional challenges, Gibson, 726 F.2d at 874 ("any attempt to define 'reasonable doubt' will probably trigger a constitutional challenge"), the wisest course for trial courts to take is to avoid defining reasonable doubt in their instructions unless specifically requested to do so by the jury. Nevertheless, the mere attempt to instruct the jury on reasonable doubt does not constitute a per se constitutional violation warranting reversal on collateral attack. Smith, 718 F.2d at 1276. Consequently, our inquiry here is directed at whether, and to what extent, the instructions given in this case may have led the jury to evaluate

Murphy's guilt under a reasonable doubt standard below that commanded by the Constitution.

A. The Standard of Review

At the outset, we recognize that challenged jury instructions "may not be viewed in artificial isolation, but must be viewed in the context of the overall charge." 3 Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 146, 94 S.Ct. 396, 400, 38 L.Ed.2d 368 (1973); accord Smith, 718 F.2d at 1276. On collateral attack of a state conviction, the role of the reviewing court is limited and the inquiry is narrow. Smith, 718 F.2d at 1276. More precisely, "the question in ... a collateral proceeding is 'whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process,' not merely whether 'the instruction is undesirable, erroneous or even universally condemned.' " Id. (quoting Cupp, 414 U.S. at 146, 147, 94 S.Ct. at 400, 401) (citations omitted). Unless the jury instruction renders the trial "fundamentally unfair," there is no entitlement to habeas corpus relief. Cooper v. North Carolina, 702 F.2d 481, 483 (4th Cir.1983).

B. Application of the Standard of Review

Murphy limits his challenge of the jury charge to instructions two, three, and four. The portion of instruction number two to which Murphy objects informed the jury that

[a] reasonable doubt does not mean a vague, fanciful or imaginary doubt. It means doubt based on reason ... a doubt for which a reason can be given.... A reasonable doubt is such that, were the same kind of doubt interposed in the graver transactions of life, it would cause a reasonable and prudent man to hesitate and pause.

(JA 841). An instruction that a reasonable doubt is "a doubt for which a reason can be given" merely conveys what is already axiomatic from the plain meaning of those very words. Except in rare cases, 4 a doubt for which no reason can be given is an unreasonable doubt. While such a definition does nothing to advance the jury's understanding of reasonable doubt, it in no way undermines or destroys their common sense appreciation of that term's meaning.

It is thus not surprising that courts have consistently held that an instruction declaring to the jury that reasonable doubt must be based on a reason does not overstep the constitutional boundaries erected by the fifth amendment. Robinson v. Callahan, 694 F.2d 6 (1st Cir.1982) (instruction that reasonable doubt is "a doubt for which you can give a reason" is not constitutional error); United States v....

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