Carter v. Kentucky
450 U.S. 288 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Carter v. Kentucky, 450 U.S. 288 (1981)

Carter v. Kentucky

No. 80-5060

Argued January 14, 1981

Decided March 9, 1981

450 U.S. 288

Syllabus

At petitioner's criminal trial in a Kentucky court in which no testimony was introduced on behalf of the defense, the trial judge refused petitioner's requested jury instruction that

"[t]he [defendant] is not compelled to testify, and the fact that he does not cannot be used as an inference of guilt, and should not prejudice him in any way."

On appeal from petitioner's conviction, the Kentucky Supreme Court rejected his argument that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments require the trial judge to give the requested instruction, holding that such instruction would have required the judge to "comment upon" the petitioner's failure to testify in violation of a Kentucky statute prohibiting such a comment.

Held: Petitioner had a right to the requested instruction under the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination of the Fifth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, a state trial judge having a constitutional obligation, upon proper request, to minimize the danger that the jury will give evidentiary weight to a defendant's failure to testify. Pp. 450 U. S. 295-305.

(a) The penalty imposed upon a defendant for the exercise of his constitutional privilege not to testify is severe when there is an adverse comment on his silence, Griffin v. California,380 U. S. 609, but even without adverse comment, a jury, unless instructed otherwise, may well draw adverse inferences from a defendant's silence. Instructions to the jury on the law are perhaps nowhere more important than in the context of the Fifth Amendment privilege against compulsory self-incrimination. While no judge can prevent jurors from speculating about why a defendant stands mute in the face of a criminal accusation, a judge can, and must, if requested to do so, use the unique power of the jury instruction to reduce that speculation to a minimum. Pp. 450 U. S. 299-303.

(b) Kentucky's interest in protecting the defendant is insufficient justification for refusing the requested instruction, since "[i]t would be strange indeed to conclude that this cautionary instruction violates the very constitutional provision it is intended to protect." Lakeside v. Oregon,435 U. S. 333, 435 U. S. 339. The fact that the jury was instructed to determine petitioner's guilt "from the evidence alone" does not excuse

Page 450 U. S. 289

the refusal to give the requested instruction, since a jury, not knowing the technical meaning of "evidence," can be expected to notice defendant's failure to testify, and, without limiting instructions, to speculate about incriminating inferences from a defendant's silence. Nor was an instruction that the law presumes defendant to be innocent a substitute for the requested instruction, since it is doubtful that it contributed significantly to the jury's proper understanding of petitioner's failure to testify. And defense counsel's own argument that petitioner did not have to take the stand could not have had the purging effect that the requested instruction would have had. Pp. 450 U. S. 303-304.

598 S.W.2d 763, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 450 U. S. 305. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 450 U. S. 307. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 450 U. S. 307.

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