State v. Williams, 45

Decision Date17 December 1975
Docket NumberNo. 45,45
Citation288 N.C. 680,220 S.E.2d 558
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. George Edward WILLIAMS.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Atty. Gen. Rufus L. Edmisten by Asst. Atty. Gen. William B. Ray and Associate Atty. Isaac T. Avery, III, Raleigh, for the State.

Wallace C. Harrelson, public defender, Greensboro, for defendant-appellant.

BRANCH, Justice.

Defendant's first assignment of error presents the following question:


Portions of the charge pertinent to this assignment of error are:

'If the State proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally killed Ruby Jean McCrorey with a deadly weapon or intentionally inflicted a wound upon Ruby Jean McCrorey with a deadly weapon that proximately caused her death, the law raises two presumptions; first, that the killing was unlawful, and, second, that it was done with malice.'

'In order for you to find the defendant guilty of second degree murder, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally shot Ruby Jean McCrorey with a deadly weapon thereby proximately causing her death, then nothing else appearing, the defendant would be guilty of second degree murder.'

Substantially similar instructions have been approved by many decisions of this Court. State v. Rummage, 280 N.C. 51, 185 S.E.2d 221; State v. Wrenn, 279 N.C. 676, 185 S.E.2d 129; State v. Reams, 277 N.C. 391, 178 S.E.2d 65; State v. Mercer, 275 N.C. 108, 165 S.E.2d 328; State v. Cooper, 273 N.C. 51, 159 S.E.2d 305; State v. Phillips, 264 N.C. 508, 142 S.E.2d 337; State v. Fleming, 202 N.C. 512, 163 S.E. 453. In instant case the trial judge correctly submitted to the jury as possible verdicts first-degree murder, second-degree murder or a verdict of not guilty since these were the only verdicts supported by the evidence. There was no evidence that defendant acted in suddenly provoked heat of passion so as to reduce the crime to manslaughter; neither was there evidence that the killing was without intent to kill or to inflict serious injury so as to justify a charge on involuntary manslaughter. We note, in passing, that the evidence did not warrant a charge on self-defense or that the killing was by accident or misadventure. The State's evidence shows that defendant by the intentional use of a deadly weapon shot Ruby Jean McCrorey thereby proximately causing her death. Defendant's evidence was to the effect that he did not fire the weapon that caused her death. Thus this assignment of error only presents the question of whether the instruction was constitutionally impermissible because it raised the presumptions of malice and unlawfulness upon proof of certain basic facts thereby relieving the State of the burden of proving all elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Presumptions and inferences may arise upon proof of another fact or combination of facts. The types of presumptions and inferences so arising include: (1) A Conclusive presumption is one in which the presumed fact is deemed to be conclusively demonstrated upon proof of the basic fact and no evidence of the non-existence of the presumed fact will be heard. (2) A Prima facie case or an inference may arise upon proof of the basic facts by which the jury may (but need not) find the presumed fact. (3) A True presumption is one in which the trier of the facts must find the presumed fact upon establishment of the basic facts unless sufficient evidence of its non-existence has been introduced. See 2 Stansbury's North Carolina Evidence (Brandis Revision 1973) § 215 at pages 166--169 and the cases there cited.

The United States Supreme Court and this Court recognize that proof of certain basic facts in a criminal prosecution may give rise to an inference (prima facie case) or a true presumption. Turner v. United States, 396 U.S. 398, 90 S.Ct. 642, 24 L.Ed.2d 610, reh. den., 397 U.S. 958, 90 S.Ct. 939, 25 L.Ed.2d 144; United States v. Gainey, 380 U.S. 63, 85 S.Ct. 754, 13 L.Ed.2d 658; Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469, 16 S.Ct. 353, 40 L.Ed. 499; State v. Rummage, supra; State v. Riera, 276 N.C. 361, 172 S.E.2d 535; State v. Mercer, supra; State v. Allison, 265 N.C. 512, 144 S.E.2d 578.

It must be borne in mind that presumptions and inferences differ. The distinctions between the two are well stated in 2 Stansbury's North Carolina Evidence (Brandis Revision 1973) § 218 beginning on page 172:

. . . (A) 'prima facie case' or 'prima facie evidence' means evidence sufficient to go to the jury in support of a fact to be proved. There is mothing compulsory about it; the jury may disbelieve the evidence presented, or believe the evidence but decline to draw the inferences necessary to a finding of the ultimate fact, or believe the evidence and draw the necessary inferences. In the case of a presumption, however, although the jury may still disbelieve the evidence and thus fail to find the existence of the basic fact, it should be told that if it finds the basic fact it Must also find the presumed fact, unless evidence of its nonexistence is produced sufficient to rebut the presumption.

It will thus be seen that a prima facie case and a presumption differ sharply in their effect upon the burden of producing evidence. A prima facie case discharges the burden of the proponent, but does not shift the burden to his adversary. A presumption, however, not only discharges the proponent's burden but also throws upon the other party the burden of producing evidence that the presumed fact does not exist. If no such evidence is produced, or if the evidence proffered is insufficient for that purpose, the party against whom the presumption operates will be subject to an adverse ruling by the judge, directing the jury to find in favor of the presumed fact if the basic fact is found to have been established.

. . . The general rule appears to be that a presumption merely fixes upon the opponent the burden of producing evidence, and leaves the burden of the issue unaffected. . . .

In this jurisdiction, upon proof that an accused intentionally inflicted a wound with a deadly weapon proximately causing death, True presumptions arise that the killing was unlawful and that it was done with malice.

Obviously such inferences' and presumptions must arise within constitutional bounds and we therefore consider some of the cases which set out the standards of constitutionality which must be met.

In the case of State v. Hales, 256 N.C. 27, 122 S.E.2d 768, Justice Parker (later Chief Justice) quoted with approval from 12 Am.Jur., Constitutional Law, Section 629, the following:

'The legislature has power to enact provisions, even in criminal actions, that where certain facts have been proved, they shall be prima facie evidence of the main fact in question if the fact proved has some fair relation to, or natural connection with, the main fact. There is no vested right to the rule of evidence that everyone shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty, which prevents the legislature from making the doing of certain acts prima facie proof of guilt or of some element of guilt.' To the same effect: State v. Barrett, 138 N.C. 630, 50 S.E. 506, 1 L.R.A.,N.S., 626; State v. Dowdy, 145 N.C. 432, 58 S.E. 1002; State v. Hammond, 188 N.C. 602, 125 S.E. 402; State v. Fowler and Brincefield, 205 N.C. 608, 172 S.E. 191; Casey v. U.S., 276 U.S. 413, 48 S.Ct. 373, 72 L.Ed. 632; 16 C.J.S. Constitutional Law, § 128d.

We note with interest that the author of Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 44 L.Ed.2d 508, Mr. Justice Powell, writing for the Court in the case of Barnes v. United States, 412 U.S. 837, 93 S.Ct. 2357, 37 L.Ed.2d 380, approved an instruction that 'possession of recently stolen property, if not satisfactorily explained, is ordinarily a circumstance from which you may reasonably draw the inference and find, in the light of the surrounding circumstances shown by the evidence in the case, that the person in possession knew the property has been stolen.' In holding this instruction to comport with due process the Court reviewed and relied on the recent cases of Turner v. United States, supra; Leary v. United States, 395 U.S. 6, 89 S.Ct. 1532, 23 L.Ed.2d 57, and United States v. Gainey, supra.

In Gainey the Court upheld the constitutionality of a statute which allowed the jury to infer from the defendant's unexplained presence at an illegal still that he was engaged in the 'business of a distillery.' The Court reasoned that there was a rational connection 'between the facts proved and the ultimate fact presumed' because of the comprehensive nature of the charge and the fact that the operation of illicit stills are secret and furtive in nature.

In Leary the Court upheld a challenge to a statutory inference that possession of marijuana, unless satisfactorily explained, was sufficient to prove that defendant knew that the marijuana was illegally imported into the United States. The Court reasoned that the inference did not meet due process standards since it was altogether probable that defendant believed he possessed domestically grown marijuana. In reaching its decision, the Court stated that an inference is "irrational' or 'arbitrary,' and hence unconstitutional, unless it can at least be said with substantial assurance that The presumed fact is more likely than not to flow from the proved fact on which it is made to depend.' (Emphasis ours.)

The most stringent standard employed by the Supreme Court in this line of cases is the reasonable doubt standard, I.e., proof necessary to invoke the presumption must be sufficient for a rational juror to find the presumed fact...

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