Rose v. Clark - 478 U.S. 570 (1986)
U.S. Supreme Court
Rose v. Clark, 478 U.S. 570 (1986)
Rose v. Clark
Argued March 24.1986
Decided July 2, 1986
478 U.S. 570
Respondent was charged with the murder of two persons arising from the same incident. At his trial in a Tennessee state court he defended on the ground, inter alia, that he was either insane or incapable of forming the requisite intent to kill the victims. The court instructed the jury on both first-degree murder, which requires proof of premeditation and deliberation under Tennessee law, and second-degree murder, which requires proof of malice, but not of planning and premeditation. The court then instructed the jury that "[a]ll homicides are presumed to be malicious in the absence of evidence which would rebut the implied presumption," and that, "if the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a killing has occurred, then it is presumed that the killing was done maliciously." The jury found respondent guilty of first-degree murder of one victim and of second-degree murder of the other. The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting respondent's argument that the malice instruction impermissibly shifted the burden of proof as to malice. Respondent then sought habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court, which held that the malice instruction was unconstitutional under Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U. S. 510, wherein it was held that a jury instruction creating a presumption of malice that has the effect of either eliminating intent as an issue, or of shifting the burden of proof as to intent to the defendant, violates due process. The District Court then went on to find that the error could not be deemed harmless, because respondent had "relied upon a mens rea defense." The United States Court of Appeals affirmed.
1. The harmless error standard of Chapman v. California. 386 U. S. 18, under which a reviewing court should not set aside an otherwise valid conviction if the court may confidently say, on the whole record, that the constitutional error in question was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, applies to the erroneous malice instruction in this case. Respondent had an opportunity to present evidence and argue in support of his innocence, he was tried by an impartial jury, supervised by an impartial judge, and, aside from the malice instruction, the jury was clearly instructed that it had to find respondent guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as to every element of both first- and second-degree murder.
In this context, the erroneous malice instruction does not compare with the kinds of errors that automatically require reversal of an otherwise valid conviction. The error in the instruction of impermissibly shifting the burden of proof on malice was not "so basic to a fair trial" that it could never be harmless. The purpose behind the Sandstrom rule of ensuring that only the guilty are punished supports this conclusion. Nor is a Sandstrom error equivalent to a directed verdict for the State, since, when a jury is instructed to presume malice from predicate facts, it still must find the existence of those facts beyond a reasonable doubt. Pp. 478 U. S. 576-582.
2. Although this Court has authority to decide whether, on the facts of a particular case, a constitutional error was harmless under the Chapman standard, it does so sparingly. Accordingly, since the United States Court of Appeals has not yet applied Chapman to the facts of this case, the case is remanded to that court to determine whether the error in question was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Pp. 478 U. S. 583-584.
762 F.2d 1006, vacated and remanded.
POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 478 U. S. 584. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 478 U. S. 585. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 478 U. S. 590.