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Martin v. Ohio

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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant shot and killed her husband with his gun. Defendant was charged with aggravated murder. Defendant pled self-defense. Defendant was convicted. Defendant appealed.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The right to due process is not violated when a defendant charged with aggravated murder has the burden of proving self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

It follows, I submit, that if a State provides that a specific component of a prohibited transaction shall give rise both to a special stigma and to a special punishment, that component must be treated as a fact necessary to constitute the crime within the meaning of our holding in in re Winship.

View Full Point of Law

During an argument,  Earline Martin’s (Defendant) husband hit her in the head. According to Defendant, she picked up her husband’s gun to get rid of it. When the husband saw something in Defendant’s hand, he lunged at her. Defendant lost control and fired the gun at her husband, killing him. Defendant was charged with aggravated murder, which was defined under Ohio law as purposely causing another’s death with prior calculation and design. Defendant pled self-defense, an affirmative defense under Ohio law, which the defendant has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence. The judge rejected Defendant’s contention that placing the burden on Defendant to prove self-defense violated her right to due process, and the judge instructed the jury that a conviction required a finding that: 1) the state had proved each element of aggravated murder beyond a reasonable doubt and 2) none of the self-defense evidence had raised a reasonable doubt that Defendant purposely killed her husband with a prior design. The jury was also instructed that an acquittal required a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant acted in self-defense and: 1) did not start the argument with her husband; 2) honestly believed that she was an imminent danger; and 3) satisfied any duty to retreat. The jury convicted Defendant and both the Ohio Court of Appeals and Supreme Court affirmed. Defendant appealed.


Whether the right to due process is violated when a defendant charged with aggravated murder has the burden of proving self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence.


The Court overlooks the basic principle in Patterson that when an affirmative defense negates an element of a crime, the state is not permitted to shift the burden to the defendant and must prove the nonexistence of the defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Under Ohio law, the element of prior calculation is only present when the defendant planned the killing, not when the defendant believed herself to be in imminent danger and used deadly force without a prior design to kill. The majority mistakenly concludes that such an overlap between the crime and defense is unimportant as long as the jury is instructed that the burden of proof is on the state. The majority’s holding incorrectly expands the deference given to a state in outlining burden-shifting procedures.


A state’s practice of requiring a defendant to prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence in an aggravated murder case does not violate the Constitution. In Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977), the Court affirmed the common-law rule that the burden of proof is on the defendant for affirmative defenses, including self-defense. Specifically, the Court found that New York’s requirement that a defendant prove the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance to mitigate murder to manslaughter was constitutional. In doing so, the Court highlighted the state’s responsibility to define criminal offenses and outline criminal-court procedures. Neither Ohio law nor the jury instructions violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by shifting to petitioner the State's burden of proving the elements of the crime. The instructions, when read as a whole, do not improperly suggest that self-defense evidence could not be considered in determining whether there was reasonable doubt about the sufficiency of the State's proof of the crime's elements.

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