Connecticut v. Johnson
460 U.S. 73 (1983)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Connecticut v. Johnson, 460 U.S. 73 (1983)

Connecticut v. Johnson, 460 U.S. 73 (1983)

No. 81-927

Argued October 13, 1982

Decided February 23, 1983

460 U.S. 73

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF CONNECTICUT

Syllabus

Upon a jury trial in a Connecticut state court, respondent was convicted of all the charges under a multicount information, including charges of attempted murder and robbery. The trial court's general instructions to the jury included an instruction that

"a person's intention may be inferred from his conduct and every person is conclusively presumed to intend the natural and necessary consequences of his act."

In specific instructions on the elements of each crime, the charge as to attempted murder again referred to a conclusive presumption of intent, but the instructions on robbery did not contain any further discussion of intent. While respondent's appeal was pending, this Court decided Sandstrom v. Montana,442 U. S. 510, which held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated by a jury instruction that "the law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts," because a reasonable juror might have viewed it as creating a conclusive presumption of intent or as shifting the burden of proof as to intent. Sandstrom left open the question whether, if a jury is so instructed, the error can ever be harmless. Thereafter, the Connecticut Supreme Court, while affirming respondent's convictions on other counts in the information, reversed his convictions for attempted murder and robbery. Without discussing the State's argument that the Sandstrom violation was harmless, the court concluded that the unconstitutional "conclusive presumption" language in the general instructions was not cured by the specific instructions on attempted murder and robbery.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. 185 Conn.163, 440 A.2d 858, affirmed.

JUSTICE BLACKMUN, joined by JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE MARSHALL, concluded that the instructional error deprived respondent of "constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error," Chapman v. California,386 U. S. 18, 386 U. S. 23. No matter how strong the prosecution's evidence, a reviewing court cannot find beyond a reasonable doubt that a Sandstrom error did not contribute to the jury's verdict. A trial judge may not direct a jury to return a guilty verdict regardless of how overwhelmingly the evidence may point in that direction, and a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent is the functional equivalent of a directed verdict on that issue. Respondent's jurors reasonably could have

Page 460 U. S. 74

interpreted the instructions as requiring a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent, an element of the crimes charged, leading them to ignore the evidence -- including evidence relating to respondent's apparent defense that he intended to borrow, rather than steal, the victim's car, and that he did not intend to kill the victim -- in finding that the State had proved respondent guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If so, a reviewing court cannot hold that the error did not contribute to the verdict, since the fact that the reviewing court may view the evidence of intent as overwhelming is irrelevant. While there may be rare situations in which the reviewing court can be confident that a Sandstrom error did not play any role in the jury's verdict -- such as where, by raising a particular defense or by his other actions, the defendant himself has taken the issue of intent from the jury -- such an exception, regardless of its boundaries, does not apply here. Pp. 460 U. S. 81-88.

JUSTICE STEVENS concluded that no federal question was raised by the Connecticut Supreme Court's refusal to consider whether the Sandstrom error here was harmless, and that therefore the writ of certiorari should simply be dismissed. However, because a fifth vote was necessary to authorize the entry of a Court judgment, he joined the disposition allowing the Connecticut Supreme Court's judgment to stand. Pp. 460 U. S. 88-90.

BLACKMUN, J., announced the judgment of the Court, and delivered an opinion, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 460 U. S. 88. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 460 U. S. 90. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 460 U. S. 90.

JUSTICE BLACKMUN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE MARSHALL joined.

In Sandstrom v. Montana,442 U. S. 510 (1979), this Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated by a jury instruction that "the law presumes

Page 460 U. S. 75

that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." Id. at 442 U. S. 512. We expressly left open in that case the question whether, if a jury is so instructed, the error can ever be harmless. Id. at 442 U. S. 526-527. Since Sandstrom, courts have taken different approaches to the harmless error problem. [Footnote 1] We therefore granted certiorari in this litigation to resolve the conflict. 455 U.S. 937 (1982).

I

A

Respondent Lindsay B. Johnson was accused in a four-count information of attempted murder, kidnaping in the second degree, robbery in the first degree, and sexual assault in the first degree. His jury trial in Connecticut Superior Court concluded with a verdict of guilty on all counts.

The evidence at trial revealed the following sequence of events: at approximately 11 p.m. on December 20, 1975, respondent and three male companions were in an automobile

Page 460 U. S. 76

in Norwalk, Conn. A young woman who had lost her way stopped her car and asked them for directions. Respondent offered to ride with her to show her the way. She agreed, and the two drove off. Respondent's companions followed in the other car.

When the woman reached a location familiar to her, she stopped and waited for respondent to get out of the car. Instead, respondent pulled her over to the passenger side of the car, and one of his companions entered on the other side and started to drive. The woman was told that the men needed a car. Shortly thereafter, the second car was abandoned, and its two occupants got into the woman's car. The four men verbally abused her, threatened her with bodily harm, displayed a knife, and told her that the driver had a gun. The group stopped again in Norwalk to pick up a fifth man. During still another stop, one of the men placed a fully loaded, semiautomatic rifle in the trunk. When the woman asked the group to take the car and leave her alone, they replied that she would be given money and left near her home at the end of the evening.

The men then drove the car eastward on the Connecticut Turnpike to New Haven. Respondent, who is black, remarked that he had "never had a white woman before." Tr. 50, 262. The group arrived in New Haven in the early morning, and stopped for gas. Respondent then directed the driver to a large apartment complex, where he pulled the woman from the car and into a lavatory on the first floor of the building. There, all five men sexually assaulted her.

When the woman was returned to the car, respondent bound her hands with telephone cord. Respondent told her that she would be left with a dime near a telephone booth so she could call home while they made their getaway. After directing the driver to a bridge, respondent pulled the woman out of the car and forced her to run with him to the middle of the bridge. They struggled and respondent threw her over the railing. She landed on a large pipe but jumped

Page 460 U. S. 77

into the river when she saw respondent pursuing her. She then eluded respondent by hiding under the bridge; she was able to untie her hands. She remained hidden for a while because she heard voices shouting, but eventually she sought refuge from the cold. [Footnote 2] Shortly after 4 a.m., the residents of a nearby house admitted her when they heard her moaning, "please let me in . . . they were trying to kill me." Id. at 390.

Relying on information provided by the woman, police arrested respondent and the other four men in Norwalk a few hours later. Two days thereafter, the victim identified all five from an array of 15 photographs. She also identified respondent in court, [Footnote 3] describing him as the most vicious and violent of her assailants.

The defense theory, as indicated by the cross-examination of the State's witnesses, [Footnote 4] apparently was that the woman had consented to travel with the group and to have sex with them, and that respondent did not plan to keep the woman's car or to kill her. For example, respondent's attorney asked the woman whether any mention had been made of going to a motel or having sex, whether she had consented to the sexual acts, and whether any of the men had said that the car would be returned in the morning with a full tank of gas. When the

Page 460 U. S. 78

woman stated that she was behind the wheel after the car became stuck in a snowbank on the turnpike, counsel asked how many of the men had got out of the car to push it or, indeed, whether all of them had done so. Cross-examination also revealed that, when the woman went to the hospital on December 21, she told the examining physician that she had had sexual relations with her boyfriend the previous morning. According to the doctor, this might have accounted for sperm observed in gynecological tests. Finally, police descriptions of the bridge were arguably contrary to the victim's description of the area as "secluded."

B

The trial court's charge to the jury began with general instructions on applicable principles of law. The jury was told to accept the court's pronouncements of the law, but to be the sole judge of the facts. The court explained the presumption of innocence and the State's burden of proving the existence of every element of the crimes charged beyond a reasonable doubt. The court then described intent as

"a question of fact that is solely within your province as jurors. However, you should be aware of a rule of law that will be helpful to you, and that is that a person's intention may be inferred from his conduct, and every person is conclusively presumed to intend the natural and necessary consequences of his act."

App. 22A-23A.

The court then gave specific instructions on the elements of each crime. With respect to attempted murder, the court again spoke of a conclusive presumption. [Footnote 5] The charge on

Page 460 U. S. 79

kidnaping in the second degree, on the other hand, referred to intent as "very largely a matter of inference." [Footnote 6] The instructions on robbery in the first degree and sexual assault in the first degree did not contain any further discussion of intent. The charge concluded with a reminder as to the State's burden of proof and the jury's duty to base its verdict on the evidence presented and on the law given by the court.

C

Respondent filed a timely appeal in December, 1976, but, because of problems with the reporter in obtaining a complete transcript, the appeal was not briefed and argued until February, 1981. In the interim, this Court decided Sandstrom v. Montana,442 U. S. 510 (1979). Respondent argued on appeal that the "conclusively presumed" language in the jury instructions on intent rendered the instructions unconstitutional under Sandstrom. [Footnote 7] The State argued that the error, if any, was harmless.

The Supreme Court of Connecticut affirmed respondent's convictions for kidnaping and sexual assault, but reversed

Page 460 U. S. 80

the convictions for attempted murder and robbery on the basis of the instructions regarding intent. [Footnote 8] 185 Conn.163, 440 A.2d 858 (1981). In accordance with Sandstrom, the court analyzed the charge as a whole to determine how the jury might have interpreted it; the court balanced other portions of the charge against the challenged language, essentially to determine whether "the ailing instruction, by itself, so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process." Cupp v. Naughten,414 U. S. 141, 414 U. S. 147 (1973). The court first found that the general instructions were infirm, because the inferential language in that portion of the charge was not "sufficient to prevent the jury from interpreting the [conclusive] presumption in the way it was expressed to them." 185 Conn. at 171, 440 A.2d at 863. The court then turned to the specific instructions "to determine whether the Sandstrom error in the general instructions was repeated, incorporated, or possibly cured by the specific language used." Id. at 172, 440 A.2d at 863.

The specific instruction on attempted murder had repeated the erroneous presumption language, so the court reversed respondent's conviction on that count. Id. at 173, 440 A.2d at 863. The kidnaping instruction, however, had been couched in the permissive language of inference. Finding that this language had a "significant curative effect," id. at 174, 440 A.2d at 864, the court affirmed respondent's kidnaping conviction. With respect to the robbery count, the court refused to assume that the jury had applied the permissive inferences contained in the instruction on kidnaping, rather than the conclusive presumption earlier described as applicable to all the offenses. It thus reversed that conviction. Id. at 174-176, 440 A.2d at 864-865. Finally, the

Page 460 U. S. 81

court upheld respondent's conviction for sexual assault; it ruled that sexual assault was not a specific-intent crime, and thus that the jury was not influenced by the erroneous general instruction. Id. at 176, 440 A.2d at 865.

The court did not discuss the State's argument that the Sandstrom violation was harmless, seemingly relying on its recent decision in State v. Truppi, 182 Conn. 449, 438 A.2d 712 (1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 941 (1981). [Footnote 9] In its petition for certiorari, the State claimed that the Sandstrom error should have been analyzed for harmlessness under Chapman v. California,386 U. S. 18 (1967). [Footnote 10]

II

A

In Chapman, this Court noted that "there are some constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error." Id. at 386 U. S. 23, and n. 8 (citing Gideon v. Wainwright,372 U. S. 335 (1963) (right to counsel); Payne v. Arkansas,356 U. S. 560 (1958) (coerced confession); Tumey v. Ohio,273 U. S. 510 (1927) (impartial judge)). Resolving the question reserved three years earlier in Fahy v. Connecticut,375 U. S. 85, 375 U. S. 86 (1963), the Court held that some constitutional errors may be considered harmless

Page 460 U. S. 82

if the beneficiary of the error "prove[s] beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained." 386 U.S. at 386 U. S. 24. See also Milton v. Wainwright,407 U. S. 371 (1972); Harrington v. California,395 U. S. 250 (1969).

Chapman continued a trend away from the practice of appellate courts in this country and in England of "revers[ing] judgments for the most trivial errors." R. Traynor, The Riddle of Harmless Error 13 (1970) (hereafter Traynor). Even with the enactment of harmless error statutes designed to eliminate reversals based on technical errors, [Footnote 11] it was assumed well into this century that "automatic reversal was required in any case involving the violation of a right guaranteed by the Federal Constitution." Note, Harmless Error: The Need for a Uniform Standard, 53 St. John's L.Rev. 541, 544 (1979). Before that assumption was altered in Chapman, however, the Court had decided certain cases that remain instructive here.

In Bollenbach v. United States,326 U. S. 607 (1946), the jury returned a guilty verdict just five minutes after receiving a supplemental instruction containing an improper presumption. This Court reversed the conviction, noting that to

"say that the lay jury will know enough to disregard the judge's bad law if in fact he misguides them . . . would transfer to the jury the judge's function in giving the law, and transfer to the appellate court the jury's function of measuring the evidence by appropriate legal yardsticks."

Id. at 326 U. S. 613-614. The Court rejected the Government's contention that the error was harmless in view of the abundant evidence on the issue in question, stating:

"This is to disregard the vital fact that, for seven hours, the jury was unable to find guilt in the light of the main

Page 460 U. S. 83

charge, but reached a verdict of guilty under the conspiracy count five minutes after their inquiry was answered by an untenable legal proposition. It would indeed be a long jump at guessing to be confident that the jury did not rely on the erroneous 'presumption' given them as a guide. . . . [T]he question is not whether guilt may be spelt out of a record, but whether guilt has been found by a jury according to the procedure and standards appropriate for criminal trials in the federal courts."

Id. at 326 U. S. 614.

The following year, the Court decided Carpenters v. United States,330 U. S. 395 (1947). In that case the defendants, who were unions charged with conspiracy to violate the Sherman Act, unsuccessfully had requested an instruction that a union can be found guilty for its agents' unlawful acts only if the union actually participated in, authorized, or ratified the acts. This Court held that the requested instruction correctly stated the law, and refused to find the error harmless even though there was evidence showing the unions' participation in the conspiracy:

"[A] judge may not direct a verdict of guilty, no matter how conclusive the evidence. There is no way of knowing here whether the jury's verdict was based on facts within the condemned instructions . . . or on actual authorization or ratification of such acts. . . . A failure to charge correctly is not harmless, since the verdict might have resulted from the incorrect instruction."

Id. at 330 U. S. 408-409 (footnotes omitted).

B

We agree with the State that, in light of Chapman, these cases cannot be read for the broad proposition that instructional error of constitutional dimensions may never be harmless. This is not to say, however, that any form of instructional error should be analyzed for harmlessness. The question here is whether a charge that might reasonably

Page 460 U. S. 84

have been interpreted to require a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent may be considered harmless.

The Court consistently has held that

"a trial judge is prohibited from entering a judgment of conviction or directing the jury to come forward with such a verdict . . . regardless of how overwhelmingly the evidence may point in that direction."

United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co.,430 U. S. 564, 430 U. S. 572-573 (1977); see Carpenters v. United States, 330 U.S. at 330 U. S. 408; Sparf & Hansen v. United States,156 U. S. 51, 156 U. S. 105 (1895). And Sandstrom makes it clear, we think, that a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent is the functional equivalent of a directed verdict on that issue.

In Sandstrom, the jury was instructed that "the law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." 442 U.S. at 442 U. S. 512. We held that instruction unconstitutional because a reasonable juror might have viewed it as creating a conclusive or burden-shifting presumption on intent. Rather than evaluating the evidence to determine if the State had overcome the presumption of innocence and proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had intended to kill, the jurors might have believed that, upon finding certain preliminary facts, "they were directed to find against defendant on the element of intent." Id. at 442 U. S. 523. [Footnote 12]

The Supreme Court of Connecticut, in holding the charge at issue unconstitutional under Sandstrom, found that respondent's jurors, like Sandstrom's, reasonably could have interpreted the court's charge as a conclusive presumption on the issue of intent. Such an interpretation would have led them to ignore the evidence in finding that the State had proved respondent guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, the jury conclusively could have presumed that respondent intended to kill the victim once it found that the

Page 460 U. S. 85

natural consequence of his acts was to cause the victim's death. The jury thus would have failed to consider whether there was any evidence tending to cast doubt on this element of the crime of attempted murder, such as the victim's own testimony that she had been told she would be left near a phone booth at the end of the evening.

Because a conclusive presumption eases the jury's task, "there is no reason to believe the jury would have deliberately undertaken the more difficult task" of evaluating the evidence of intent. Sandstrom, 442 U.S. at 442 U. S. 526, n. 13; see Note, Presumptive Intent Jury Instructions After Sandstrom, 1980 Wis.L.Rev. 366, 388. [Footnote 13] Given the uncontroverted evidence of respondent's participation in the events that occurred on December 20 and 21, his most likely defense was that he intended to borrow, rather than steal, the car, and that he did not intend to kill the victim. The trial court's instruction removed this defense from the jury, and directed it to find that the State had proved the intent element of the offenses.

An erroneous presumption on a disputed element of the crime renders irrelevant the evidence on the issue, because the jury may have relied upon the presumption, rather than upon that evidence. [Footnote 14] If the jury may have failed to consider

Page 460 U. S. 86

evidence of intent, a reviewing court cannot hold that the error did not contribute to the verdict. The fact that the reviewing court may view the evidence of intent as overwhelming is then simply irrelevant. [Footnote 15] To allow a reviewing court to perform the jury's function of evaluating the evidence of intent, when the jury never may have performed that function, would give too much weight to society's interest in punishing the guilty and too little weight to the method by which decisions of guilt are to be made. The Court, in Bollenbach v. United States, 326 U.S. at 326 U. S. 614-615, stated: "All law is technical if viewed solely from concern for punishing crime without heeding the mode by which it is accomplished." See County Court of Ulster County v. Allen,442 U. S. 140, 442 U. S. 160 (1979) ("[It is] irrelevant in analyzing a mandatory presumption

Page 460 U. S. 87

. . . that there is ample evidence in the record other than the presumption to support a conviction").

There may be rare situations in which the reviewing court can be confident that a Sandstrom error did not play any role in the jury's verdict. For example, if the erroneous instruction was given in connection with an offense for which the defendant was acquitted, and if the instruction had no bearing on the offense for which he was convicted, it would be appropriate to find the error harmless. See, e.g., Hearn v. James, 677 F.2d 841, 843 (CA11 1982); State v. Sheldon, 301 N.W.2d 604, 613 (N.D.1980), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 1002 (1981). In addition, a Sandstrom error may be harmless if the defendant conceded the issue of intent. See, e.g., Krzeminski v. Perini, 614 F.2d 121, 125 (CA6), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 866 (1980). See also Washington v. Harris, 650 F.2d 447, 453-454 (CA2 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 951 (1982). In presenting a defense such as alibi, insanity, or self-defense, a defendant may in some cases admit that the act alleged by the prosecution was intentional, thereby sufficiently reducing the likelihood that the jury applied the erroneous instruction as to permit the appellate court to consider the error harmless. See Traynor 73. We leave it to the lower courts to determine whether, by raising a particular defense or by his other actions, a defendant himself has taken the issue of intent away from the jury. [Footnote 16]

Such an exception, regardless of its precise boundaries, does not apply here. Respondent did not concede the issue of intent with respect to either of the counts at issue. As noted above, the instruction was not "so ill-suited to both the theory on which the case was tried and the evidence that was presented," United States v. Winter, 663 F.2d 1120, 1145 (CA1 1981), cert. pending, No. 811392, that it can be deemed harmless. The conclusive presumption the jury was

Page 460 U. S. 88

instructed to apply permitted the jury to convict respondent without ever examining the evidence concerning an element of the crimes charged. Such an error deprived respondent of "constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error." Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. at 386 U. S. 23.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Connecticut is affirmed.

It is so ordered.

[Footnote 1]

Several state and federal courts have assumed or held that Sandstrom errors may well be harmless, and have then gone on to decide whether the evidence of guilt was overwhelming. See, e.g., Lamb v. Jernigan, 683 F.2d 1332, 1342-1343 (CA11 1982), cert. pending, No. 82-5768; Jacks v. Duckworth, 651 F.2d 480, 487 (CA7 1981), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1147 (1982); People v. Wright, 408 Mich. 1, 30-32, 289 N.W.2d 1, 10-12 (1980); State v. McKenzie, 186 Mont. 481, 533-535, 608 P.2d 428, 458-459, cert. denied,449 U. S. 1050 (1980). Other courts have taken a narrower view, holding that whether an unconstitutional presumption is harmless depends on whether intent was a disputed issue in the case. See, e.g., United States v. Winter, 663 F.2d 1120, 1144-1145 (CA1 1981), cert. pending, No. 81-1392; McGuinn v. Crist, 657 F.2d 1107, 1108-1109 (CA9 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 990 (1982); Washington v. Harris, 650 F.2d 447, 453-454 (CA2 1981) (dictum), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 951 (1982); see also People v. Thomas, 50 N.Y.2d 467, 477, 407 N.E.2d 430, 436 (1980) (concurring opinion). Still other courts have suggested that Sandstrom errors can never be harmless. See, e.g., Hammontree v. Phelps, 605 F.2d 1371, 1380 (CA5 1979); State v. Truppi, 182 Conn. 449, 466, 438 A.2d 712, 721 (1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 941 (1981). See also Dietz v. Solem, 640 F.2d 126, 131 (CA8 1981).

[Footnote 2]

For the period between midnight and 4:30 a.m. on December 21, the National Weather Service in Bridgeport reported an air temperature range of 23

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