Henderson v. Kibbe - 431 U.S. 145 (1977)
U.S. Supreme Court
Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145 (1977)
Henderson v. Kibbe
Argued March 1, 1977
Decided May 16, 1977
431 U.S. 145
Respondent and his codefendant, after robbing an intoxicated man in their car, abandoned him at night on an unlighted, rural road where the visibility was obscured by blowing snow. Twenty or thirty minutes later, while helplessly seated in the road, the man was struck and killed by a speeding truck. Respondent and his accomplice were subsequently convicted in a New York trial court of grand larceny, robbery, and second-degree murder. A New York statute provides that a person is guilty of second-degree murder when,
"[u]nder circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes the death of another person."
Although the element of causation was stressed in the arguments of both defense counsel and the prosecution at the trial, neither party requested an instruction on the meaning of the "thereby causes" language of the statute and none was given. The trial judge, however, did read to the jury the statute and the indictment tracking the statutory language, and advised the jury that all elements of the crime charged must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and that a
"person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur."
Respondent's conviction was upheld on appeal, the New York Court of Appeals rejecting the argument that the truck driver's conduct constituted an intervening cause that relieved the defendants of criminal responsibility for the victim's death. Respondent then filed a habeas corpus petition in Federal District Court, which refused to review, as not raising a question of constitutional dimension, respondent's attack on the sufficiency of the jury charge. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding, on the authority of In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358, that, since the Constitution requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged, the failure to instruct the jury on an essential element as complex as the causation issue in this case created an impermissible risk that the jury had not made a finding that the Constitution requires.
Held: The trial judge's failure to instruct the jury on he issue of causation was not constitutional error requiring the District Court to grant habeas corpus relief. Pp. 431 U. S. 153-157.
(a) The omission of the causation instruction did not create a danger that the jury failed to make an essential factual determination as required by Winship, supra, where there can be no question from the record that the jurors were informed that the issue of causation was an element which required decision, and where they were instructed that all elements of the crime must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Pp. 431 U. S. 153-154.
(b) The opinion of the New York Court of Appeals makes it clear that an adequate instruction would have told the jury that, if the ultimate harm should have been foreseen as being reasonably related to the defendants' conduct, that conduct should be regarded as having caused the victim's death. There is no reason to believe that the jury would have reached a different verdict if such an instruction had been given. By returning a guilty verdict the jury necessarily found, in accordance with the trial court's instruction on recklessness, that respondent was "aware of and consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk" that death would occur. This finding logically included a determination that the ultimate harm was foreseeable. Pp. 431 U. S. 154-157.
534 F.2d 493, reversed.
STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 431 U. S. 157. REHNQUIST, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.