Brief Fact Summary.
Defendant escaped from custody and killed someone. Defendant was convicted of malice murder. Defendant’s appeal was denied.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A jury instruction that creates a mandatory rebuttable presumption of a defendant’s criminal intent violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Were this not so, it would be pointless for a trial court to instruct a jury, and even more pointless for an appellate court to reverse a criminal conviction because the jury was improperly instructed.View Full Point of Law
Franklin (Defendant), a prisoner, escaped from custody while receiving treatment at a dentist’s office after seizing a pistol from an officer who was guarding him. Taking a dental assistant with him as a hostage, Defendant fled from the office and attempted to obtain an automobile to use in his flight. Defendant first approached a local resident, but did not object when the resident said that he did not own a car. Defendant then knocked on the front door of Collie’s home and, when Collie came to the door, demanded the keys to Collie’s car. When Collie slammed the door, two shots from Defendant’s gun went off, the first killing Collie and the second going through the door and into ceiling of the house. Defendant made no attempt to stop the dental assistant from escaping shortly thereafter, nor did he make any effort to stop Collie’s wife and daughter when they fled after refusing to give Defendant the car keys. Upon being recaptured, Defendant admitted shooting Collie but stated that the shots went off accidentally after Collie slammed the door. Defendant was charged with malice murder and tried in the Superior Court of Bibb County, Georgia. At his trial, Defendant’s only defense was that he lacked the intent to kill required for malice murder. Defendant offered circumstantial evidence to support this argument, including the slamming of the door, the path of the second bullet, his statement on being recaptured, and the fact that he did not use force against any of the other people he met in the course of his flight. The trial judge’s instructions to the jury on the issue of intent included a presumption that the act of a person of sound mind is the product of the person’s will, a further presumption that such a person intends the natural and probable consequences of his actions, and a qualification that these presumptions were rebuttable. The judge also stated that a person was not to be presumed to be acting with criminal intent and that the prosecution had to prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Defendant was convicted and his appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia was denied. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Whether a jury instruction that creates a mandatory rebuttable presumption of a defendant’s criminal intent violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Yes. Defendant’s conviction is reversed. A jury instruction that creates a mandatory rebuttable presumption of a defendant’s criminal intent violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The constitutional issue in this case is whether a reasonable juror could have interpreted the trial judge’s instructions on intent as creating a mandatory rebuttable presumption that moved the burden of proof to the defendant once the prosecution established a criminal act. The two presumptions on intent are phrased in a way that could appear to a reasonable juror to be mandatory, rather than inferences or conclusions which he could choose to draw at his discretion. The Court held in Sandstrom v. Montana (1979) that this type of instruction violates the Due Process Clause by putting the burden of proof on intent, an essential element of the crime, on the defendant rather than the prosecution. The fact that this case differs from Sandstrom in that the presumption here is rebuttable does not cure the instruction, because the defendant still has the burden of overcoming the presumption. Finally, the instruction is not cured by general phrases to the effect that criminal intent may not be presumed and that the burden of proof is on the prosecution. A reasonable juror could have concluded that the state could prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt by establishing that Defendant fired the gun and that Collie’s death followed as a natural consequence, unless Defendant could overcome the specific presumptions regarding intent.