Sandstrom v. Montana

Decision Date18 June 1979
Docket NumberNo. 78-5384,78-5384
PartiesDavid SANDSTROM, Petitioner, v. State of MONTANA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Based upon a confession and other evidence, petitioner was charged under a Montana statute with "deliberate homicide," in that he "purposely or knowingly" caused the victim's death. At trial, petitioner argued that, although he killed the victim, he did not do so "purposely or knowingly," and therefore was not guilty of deliberate homicide. The trial court instructed the jury that "[t]he law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts," over petitioner's objection that such instruction had the effect of shifting the burden of proof on the issue of purpose or knowledge. The jury found petitioner guilty, and the Montana Supreme Court affirmed, holding that although shifting the burden of proof to the defendant by means of a presumption is prohibited, allocation of "some burden of proof" to a defendant is permissible. Finding that under the instruction in question petitioner's sole burden was to produce "some " evidence that he did not intend the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts, and not to disprove that he acted "purposely or knowingly," the Montana court held that the instruction did not violate due process standards.

Held: Because the jury may have interpreted the challenged presumption as conclusive, like the presumptions in Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288, and United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, 98 S.Ct. 2864, 57 L.Ed.2d 854, or as shifting the burden of persuasion, like that in Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 44 L.Ed.2d 508, and because either interpretation would have violated the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the State prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt, the instruction is unconstitutional. Pp. 514-527.

(a) The effect of a presumption in a jury instruction is determined by the way in which a reasonable juror could have interpreted it, not by a state court's interpretation of its legal import. Pp.514,517.

(b) Conclusive presumptions "conflict with the overriding presumption of innocence with which the law endows the accused and which extends to every element of the crime," Morissette, supra, at 275, 72 S.Ct. at 255, and they "invad[e the] factfinding function," United States Gypsum Co., supra, at 446, 98 S.Ct. at 2878, which in a criminal case the law assigns to the jury. The presumption announced to petitioner's jury may well have had exactly these consequences, since upon finding proof of one element of the crime (causing death), and of facts insufficient to establish the second (the voluntariness and "ordinary consequences" of petitioner's action), the jury could have reasonably concluded that it was directed to find against petitioner on the element of intent. The State was thus not forced to prove "beyond a reasonable DOUBT . . . EVERY FACT NECESSARY TO CONSTITUTe the crime . . . charged," in re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 1072, 25 L.Ed.2d 368, and petitioner was deprived of his constitutional rights. Pp. 521-523.

(c) A presumption which, although not conclusive, had the effect of shifting the burden of persuasion to petitioner, would have suffered from similar infirmities. If the jury interpreted the presumption in this manner, it could have concluded that upon proof by the State of the slaying, and of additional facts not themselves establishing the element of intent, the burden was then shifted to petitioner to prove that he lacked the requisite mental state. Such a presumption was found constitutionally deficient in Mullaney, supra. P.524

(d) Without merit is the State's argument that since the jury could have interpreted the word "intends" in the instruction as referring only to petitioner's "purpose," and could have convicted petitioner solely for his "knowledge" without considering "purpose," it might not have relied upon the tainted presumption at all. First, it is not clear that a jury would have so interpreted "intends". More significantly, even if a jury could have ignored the presumption, it cannot be certain that this is what it did do, as its verdict was a general one. Pp. 525-526.

(e) Since whether the jury's reliance upon the instruction constituted, or could have ever constituted, harmless error are issues that were not considered by the Montana Supreme Court, this Court will not reach them as an initial matter. Pp. 526-527.

176 Mont. 492, 580 P.2d 106, reversed and remanded.

Byron W. Boggs, Helena, Mont., for petitioner.

Michael T. Greely, Atty. Gen., Helena, Mont., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether, in a case in which intent is an element of the crime charged, the jury instruction, "the law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts," violates the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the State prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

I

On November 22, 1976, 18-year-old David Sandstrom confessed to the slaying of Annie Jessen. Based upon the confession and corroborating evidence, petitioner was charged on December 2 with "deliberate homicide," Mont.Code Ann. § 45-5-102 (1978), in that he "purposely or knowingly caused the death of Annie Jessen." App. 3.1 At trial, Sandstrom's attorney informed the jury that, although his client admitted killing Jessen, he did not do so "purposely or knowingly," and was therefore not guilty of "deliberate homicide" but of a lesser crime. Id., at 6-8. The basic support for this contention was the testimony of two court-appointed mental health experts, each of whom described for the jury petitioner's mental state at the time of the incident. Sandstrom's attorney argued that this testimony demonstrated that petitioner, due to a personality disorder aggravated by alcohol consumption, did not kill Annie Jessen "purposely or knowingly." 2

The prosecution requested the trial judge to instruct the jury that "[t]he law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." Petitioner's counsel objected, arguing that "the instruction has the effect of shifting the burden of proof on the issue of" purpose or knowledge to the defense, and that "that is impermissible under the Federal Constitution, due process of law." Id., at 34. He offered to provide a number of federal decisions in support of the objection, including this Court's holding in Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 44 L.Ed.2d 508 (1975), but was told by the judge: "You can give those to the Supreme Court. The objection is overruled." App. 34. The instruction was delivered, the jury found petitioner guilty of deliberate homicide, id., at 38, and petitioner was sentenced to 100 years in prison.

Sandstrom appealed to the Supreme Court of Montana, again contending that the instruction shifted to the defendant the burden of disproving an element of the crime charged, in violation of Mullaney v. Wilbur, supra, In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970), and Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 97 S.Ct. 2319, 53 L.Ed.2d 281 (1977). The Montana court conceded that these cases did prohibit shifting the burden of proof to the defendant by means of a presumption, but held that the cases "do not prohibit allocation ofsome burden of proof to a defendant under certain circumstances." 176 Mont. 492, 497, 580 P.2d 106, 109 (1978). Since in the court's view, "[d]efendant's sole burden under instruction No. 5 was to produce some evidence that he did not intend the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts, not to disprove that he acted 'purposely' or 'knowingly,' . . . the instruction does not violate due process standards as defined by the United States or Montana Constitution . . . ." Ibid. (emphasis added).

Both federal and state courts have held, under a variety of rationales, that the giving of an instruction similar to that challenged here is fatal to the validity of a criminal conviction.3 We granted certiorari, 439 U.S. 1067, 99 S.Ct. 832, 59 L.Ed.2d 31 (1979), to decide the important question of the instruction's constitutionality. We reverse.

II

The threshold inquiry in ascertaining the constitutional analysis applicable to this kind of jury instruction is to determine the nature of the presumption it describes. See Ulster County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 157-163, 99 S.Ct. 2213, 2224-2227, 60 L.Ed.2d 777 (1979). That determination requires careful attention to the words actually spoken to the jury, see id., at 157-159, n. 16, 99 S.Ct., at 2225, for whether a defendant has been accorded his constitutional rights depends upon the way in which a reasonable juror could have interpreted the instruction.

Respondent argues, first, that the instruction merely described a permissive inference—that is, it allowed but did not require the jury to draw conclusions about defendant's intent from his actions—and that such inferences are constitutional. Brief for Respondent 3, 15. These arguments need not detain us long, for even respondent admits that "it's possible" that the jury believed they were required to apply the presumption. Tr. of Oral Arg. 28. Sandstrom's jurors were told that "[t]he law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." They were not told that they had a choice, or that they might infer that conclusion; they were told only that the law presumed it. It is clear that a reasonable juror could easily have viewed such an instruction as mandatory. See generally United States v. Wharton, 139 U.S.App.D.C. 293, 298, 433 F.2d 451, 456 (1970); Green v. United States, 132 U.S.App.D.C. 98, 99, 405 F.2d 1368, 1369 (1968). See also Montana Rule of Evidence 301(a).4

In the alternative, respondent urges that, even if...

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