Francis v. Franklin - 471 U.S. 307 (1985)
U.S. Supreme Court
Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S. 307 (1985)
Francis v. Franklin
Argued November 28, 1984
Decided April 29, 1985
471 U.S. 307
Respondent state prisoner, while attempting to escape after receiving treatment at a local dentist's office, shot and killed the resident of a nearby house with a stolen pistol when, at the moment the resident slammed the front door as respondent demanded the key to the resident's car, the pistol fired and a bullet pierced the door, hitting the resident in the chest. Respondent was tried in Georgia Superior Court on a charge of malice murder. His sole defense was a lack of the requisite intent to kill, claiming that the killing was an accident. The trial judge instructed the jury on the issue of intent as follows:
"The acts of a person of sound mind and discretion are presumed to be the product of the person's will, but the presumption may be rebutted. A person of sound mind and discretion is presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of his acts, but the presumption may be rebutted. A person will not be presumed to act with criminal intention, but the trier of facts . . . may find criminal intention upon a consideration of the words, conduct, demeanor, motive and all of the circumstances connected with the act for which the accused is prosecuted."
The jury was also instructed that the respondent was presumed innocent and that the State was required to prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and respondent was sentenced to death. After an unsuccessful appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, and after exhausting state postconviction remedies, respondent sought habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court. That court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the jury charge on intent could have been interpreted by a reasonable juror as a mandatory presumption that shifted to respondent a burden of persuasion on the intent element of the offense, and accordingly violated the Fourteenth Amendment due process guarantees set forth in Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U. S. 510.
Held: The instruction on intent, when read in the context of the jury charge as a whole, violated the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the State prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Sandstrom v. Montana, supra. Pp. 471 U. S. 313-327.
(a) A jury instruction that creates a mandatory presumption whereby the jury must infer the presumed fact if the State proves certain predicate
facts violates the Due Process Clause if it relieves the State of the burden of persuasion on an element of an offense. If a specific portion of the jury charge, considered in isolation, could reasonably have been understood as creating such a presumption, the potentially offending words must be considered in the context of the charge as a whole. Pp. 471 U. S. 313-315.
(b) Here, a reasonable juror could have understood that the first two sentences of the instruction on intent created a mandatory presumption that shifted to respondent the burden of persuasion on the element of intent once the State had proved the predicate acts. The fact that the jury was informed that the presumption "may be rebutted" does not cure the infirmity in the charge, since, when combined with the immediately preceding language, the instruction could be read as telling the jury that it was required to infer intent to kill as a natural and probable consequence of the act of firing the pistol unless respondent persuaded the jury that such an inference was unwarranted. Pp. 471 U. S. 315-318.
(c) The general instructions as to the prosecution's burden and respondent's presumption of innocence did not dissipate the error in the challenged portion of the instruction on intent, because such instructions are not necessarily inconsistent with language creating a mandatory presumption of intent. Nor did the more specific "criminal intention" instruction following the challenged sentences provide a sufficient corrective, since it may well be that it was not directed to the element of intent at all, but to another element of malice murder in Georgia -- the absence of provocation or justification. That is, a reasonable juror may well have thought that the instructions related to different elements of the crime, and were therefore not contradictory -- that he could presume intent to kill, but not the absence of provocation or justification. But even if a juror could have understood the "criminal intention" instruction as applying to the element of intent, that instruction did no more than contradict the immediately preceding instructions. Language that merely contradicts, and does not explain, a constitutionally infirm instruction does not suffice to absolve the infirmity. Pp. 471 U. S. 318-325.
(d) Whether or not Sandstrom error can ever be harmless, the constitutional infirmity in this jury charge was not harmless error, because intent was plainly at issue, and was not overwhelmingly proved by the evidence. Pp. 471 U. S. 325-326.
720 F.2d 1206 and 723 F.2d 770, affirmed.
BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 471 U. S. 327. REHNQUIST J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 471 U. S. 331.