Amdt5. Guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

It had long been presumed that “reasonable doubt” was the proper standard for criminal cases,1 but, because the standard was so widely accepted, it was only relatively recently that the Court had the opportunity to pronounce it guaranteed by due process. In 1970, the Court held in In re Winship that the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments “[protect] the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.” 2

The standard is closely related to the presumption of innocence, which helps to ensure a defendant a fair trial,3 and requires that a jury consider a case solely on the evidence.4 “The reasonable doubt standard plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure. It is a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error. The standard provides concrete substance for the presumption of innocence—that bedrock ‘axiomatic and elementary’ principle whose ‘enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.’” 5

The Court had long held that, under the Due Process Clause, it would set aside convictions that are supported by no evidence at all.6 The holding of the Winship case, however, left open the question as to whether appellate courts should weigh the sufficiency of trial evidence. Thus, in Jackson v. Virginia,7 the Court held that federal courts, on direct appeal of federal convictions or collateral review of state convictions, must satisfy themselves that the evidence on the record could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The question the reviewing court is to ask itself is not whether it believes the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.8

Because due process requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged,9 the Court held in Mullaney v. Wilbur10 that it was unconstitutional to require a defendant charged with murder to prove that he acted “in the heat of passion on sudden provocation” in order to reduce the homicide to manslaughter. The Court indicated that a balancing-of-interests test should be used to determine when the Due Process Clause required the prosecution to carry the burden of proof and when some part of the burden might be shifted to the defendant. The decision, however, called into question the practice in many states under which some burdens of persuasion11 were borne by the defense, and raised the prospect that the prosecution must bear all burdens of persuasion—a significant and weighty task given the large numbers of affirmative defenses.

The Court, however, summarily rejected the argument that Mullaney means that the prosecution must negate an insanity defense,12 and, later, in Patterson v. New York,13 upheld a state statute that required a defendant asserting “extreme emotional disturbance” as an affirmative defense to murder14 to prove such by a preponderance of the evidence. According to the Court, the constitutional deficiency in Mullaney was that the statute made malice an element of the offense, permitted malice to be presumed upon proof of the other elements, and then required the defendant to prove the absence of malice. In Patterson, by contrast, the statute obligated the state to prove each element of the offense (the death, the intent to kill, and the causation) beyond a reasonable doubt, while allowing the defendant to prove an affirmative defense by preponderance of the evidence that would reduce the degree of the offense.15 This distinction has been criticized as formalistic, as the legislature can shift burdens of persuasion between prosecution and defense easily through the statutory definitions of the offenses.16

Despite the requirement that states prove each element of a criminal offense, criminal trials generally proceed with a presumption that the defendant does not have a severe mental illness, and a defendant may be limited in the evidence that he may present to challenge this presumption. In Clark v. Arizona,17 the Court considered a rule adopted by the Supreme Court of Arizona that prohibited the use of expert testimony regarding mental disease or mental capacity to show lack of mens rea, ruling that the use of such evidence could be limited to an insanity defense. In Clark, the Court weighed competing interests to hold that such evidence could be “channeled” to the issue of insanity due to the controversial character of some categories of mental disease, the potential of mental-disease evidence to mislead, and the danger of according greater certainty to such evidence than experts claim for it.18

Another important distinction that can substantially affect a prosecutor’s burden is whether a fact to be established is an element of a crime or instead is a sentencing factor. Although a criminal conviction is generally established by a jury using the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, sentencing factors are generally evaluated by a judge using few evidentiary rules and under the more lenient “preponderance of the evidence” standard. The Court has taken a formalistic approach to this issue, allowing states to designate essentially which facts fall under which of these two categories. For instance, the Court has held that whether a defendant “visibly possessed a gun” during a crime may be designated by a state as a sentencing factor, and determined by a judge based on the preponderance of evidence.19

Although the Court has generally deferred to the legislature’s characterizations in this area, it limited this principle in Apprendi v. New Jersey. In Apprendi the Court held that a sentencing factor cannot be used to increase the maximum penalty imposed for the underlying crime.20 This led, in turn, to the Court’s overruling conflicting prior case law that had held constitutional the use of aggravating sentencing factors by judges when imposing capital punishment.21 These holdings are subject to at least one exception, however,22 and the decisions might be evaded by legislatures revising criminal provisions to increase maximum penalties, and then providing for mitigating factors within the newly established sentencing range.

Another closely related issue is statutory presumptions, where proof of a “presumed fact” that is a required element of a crime, is established by another fact, the “basic fact.” 23 In Tot v. United States,24 the Court held that a statutory presumption was valid under the Due Process Clause only if it met a “rational connection” test. In that case, the Court struck down a presumption that a person possessing an illegal firearm had shipped, transported, or received such in interstate commerce. “Under our decisions, a statutory presumption cannot be sustained if there be no rational connection between the fact proved and the ultimate fact presumed, if the inference of the one from the proof of the other is arbitrary because of lack of connection between the two in common experience.”

In Leary v. United States,25 this due process test was stiffened to require that, for such a “rational connection” to exist, it must “at least be said with substantial assurance that the presumed fact is more likely than not to flow from the proved fact on which it is made to depend.” Thus, the Court voided a provision that permitted a jury to infer from a defendant’s possession of marijuana his knowledge of its illegal importation. A lengthy canvass of factual materials established to the Court’s satisfaction that, although the greater part of marijuana consumed in the United States is of foreign origin, there was still a good amount produced domestically and there was no way to assure that the majority of those possessing marijuana have any reason to know whether their marijuana is imported.26 The Court left open the question whether a presumption that survived the “rational connection” test “must also satisfy the criminal ‘reasonable doubt’ standard if proof of the crime charged or an essential element thereof depends upon its use.” 27

In a later case, a closely divided Court drew a distinction between mandatory presumptions, which a jury must accept, and permissive presumptions, which may be presented to the jury as part of all the evidence to be considered. With respect to mandatory presumptions, “since the prosecution bears the burden of establishing guilt, it may not rest its case entirely on a presumption, unless the fact proved is sufficient to support the inference of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” 28 But, with respect to permissive presumptions, “the prosecution may rely on all of the evidence in the record to meet the reasonable doubt standard. There is no more reason to require a permissive statutory presumption to meet a reasonable-doubt standard before it may be permitted to play any part in a trial than there is to require that degree of probative force for other relevant evidence before it may be admitted. As long as it is clear that the presumption is not the sole and sufficient basis for a finding of guilt, it need only satisfy the test described in Leary.” 29 Thus, due process was not violated by the application of the statute that provides that “the presence of a firearm in an automobile is presumptive evidence of its illegal possession by all persons then occupying the vehicle.” 30 The division of the Court in these cases and in the Mullaney v. Wilbur line of cases clearly shows the unsettled nature of the issues they concern.

Miles v. United States, 103 U.S. 304, 312 (1881); Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469, 488 (1895); Holt v. United States, 218 U.S. 245, 253 (1910); Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525–26 (1958). back
In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). See Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 503 (1976); Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 153 (1977); Ulster County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 156 (1979); Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, 520–24 (1979). See also Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275 (1993) ( Sixth Amendment guarantee of trial by jury requires a jury verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt). On the interrelationship of the reasonable doubt burden and defendant’s entitlement to a presumption of innocence, see Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 483–86 (1978), and Kentucky v. Whorton, 441 U.S. 786 (1979). back
E.g., Deutch v. United States, 367 U.S. 456, 471 (1961). See also Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39 (1990) (per curiam) (jury instruction that explains “reasonable doubt” as doubt that would give rise to a “grave uncertainty,” as equivalent to a “substantial doubt,” and as requiring “a moral certainty,” suggests a higher degree of certainty than is required for acquittal, and therefore violates the Due Process Clause). But see Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1 (1994) (considered as a whole, jury instructions that define “reasonable doubt” as requiring a “moral certainty” or as equivalent to “substantial doubt” did not violate due process because other clarifying language was included.) back
Holt v. United States, 218 U.S. 245 (1910); Agnew v. United States, 165 U.S. 36 (1897). These cases overturned Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 460 (1895), in which the Court held that the presumption of innocence was evidence from which the jury could find a reasonable doubt. back
397 U.S. at 363 (quoting Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453 (1895)). Justice Harlan’s Winship concurrence, id. at 368, proceeded on the basis that, because there is likelihood of error in any system of reconstructing past events, the error of convicting the innocent should be reduced to the greatest extent possible through the use of the reasonable doubt standard. back
Thompson v. City of Louisville, 362 U.S. 199 (1960); Garner v. Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157 (1961); Taylor v. Louisiana, 370 U.S. 154 (1962); Barr v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 146 (1964); Johnson v. Florida, 391 U.S. 596 (1968). See also Chessman v. Teets, 354 U.S. 156 (1957). back
443 U.S. 307 (1979). back
8 316, 18–19. See also Musacchio v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 709 (2016) ( “When a jury finds guilt after being instructed on all elements of the charged crime plus one more element,” the fact that the government did not introduce evidence of the additional element—which was not required to prove the offense, but was included in the erroneous jury instruction— “does not implicate the principles that sufficiency review protects.” ); Griffin v. United States, 502 U.S. 46 (1991) (general guilty verdict on a multiple-object conspiracy need not be set aside if the evidence is inadequate to support conviction as to one of the objects of the conviction, but is adequate to support conviction as to another object). back
Bunkley v. Florida, 538 U.S. 835 (2003); Fiore v. White, 528 U.S. 23 (1999). These cases both involved defendants convicted under state statutes that were subsequently interpreted in a way that would have precluded their conviction. The Court remanded the cases to determine if the new interpretation was in effect at the time of the previous convictions, in which case those convictions would violate due process. back
421 U.S. 684 (1975). See also Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, 520–24 (1979). back
The general notion of “burden of proof” can be divided into the “burden of production” (providing probative evidence on a particular issue) and a “burden of persuasion” (persuading the factfinder with respect to an issue by a standard such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt). Mullaney, 421 U.S. at 695 n.20. back
Rivera v. Delaware, 429 U.S. 877 (1976), dismissing as not presenting a substantial federal question an appeal from a holding that Mullaney did not prevent a state from placing on the defendant the burden of proving insanity by a preponderance of the evidence. See Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 202–05 (1977) (explaining the import of Rivera). Justice Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger concurring in Mullaney, 421 U.S. at 704, 705, had argued that the case did not require any reconsideration of the holding in Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790 (1952), that the defense may be required to prove insanity beyond a reasonable doubt. back
432 U.S. 197 (1977). back
Proving the defense would reduce a murder offense to manslaughter. back
The decisive issue, then, was whether the statute required the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt each element of the offense. See also Dixon v. United States, 548 U.S. 1 (2006) (requiring defendant in a federal firearms case to prove her duress defense by a preponderance of evidence did not violate due process). In Dixon, the prosecution had the burden of proving all elements of two federal firearms violations, one requiring a “willful” violation (having knowledge of the facts that constitute the offense) and the other requiring a “knowing” violation (acting with knowledge that the conduct was unlawful). Although establishing other forms of mens rea (such as “malicious intent” ) might require that a prosecutor prove that a defendant’s intent was without justification or excuse, the Court held that neither of the forms of mens rea at issue in Dixon contained such a requirement. Consequently, the burden of establishing the defense of duress could be placed on the defendant without violating due process. back
Dissenting in Patterson, Justice Powell argued that the two statutes were functional equivalents that should be treated alike constitutionally. He would hold that as to those facts that historically have made a substantial difference in the punishment and stigma flowing from a criminal act the state always bears the burden of persuasion but that new affirmative defenses may be created and the burden of establishing them placed on the defendant. 432 U.S. at 216. Patterson was followed in Martin v. Ohio, 480 U.S. 228 (1987) (state need not disprove defendant acted in self-defense based on honest belief she was in imminent danger, when offense is aggravated murder, an element of which is “prior calculation and design” ). Justice Powell, again dissenting, urged a distinction between defenses that negate an element of the crime and those that do not. Id. at 236, 240. back
548 U.S. 735 (2006). back
548 U.S. at 770, 774. back
McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79 (1986). It should be noted that these type of cases may also implicate the Sixth Amendment, as the right to a jury extends to all facts establishing the elements of a crime, while sentencing factors may be evaluated by a judge. See discussion in “Criminal Proceedings to Which the Guarantee Applies,” supra. back
530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000) (interpreting New Jersey’s “hate crime” law). It should be noted that, prior to its decision in Apprendi, the Court had held that sentencing factors determinative of minimum sentences could be decided by a judge. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79 (1986). Although the vitality of McMillan was put in doubt by Apprendi, McMillan was subsequently reaffirmed in Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545 (2002). back
Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639 (1990), overruled by Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). back
This limiting principle does not apply to sentencing enhancements based on recidivism. Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 490. As enhancement of sentences for repeat offenders is traditionally considered a part of sentencing, establishing the existence of previous valid convictions may be made by a judge, despite its resulting in a significant increase in the maximum sentence available. Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224 (1998) (deported alien reentering the United States subject to a maximum sentence of two years, but upon proof of felony record, is subject to a maximum of twenty years). See also Parke v. Raley, 506 U.S. 20 (1992) (where prosecutor has burden of establishing a prior conviction, a defendant can be required to bear the burden of challenging the validity of such a conviction). back
See, e.g., Yee Hem v. United States, 268 U.S. 178 (1925) (upholding statute that proscribed possession of smoking opium that had been illegally imported and authorized jury to presume illegal importation from fact of possession); Manley v. Georgia, 279 U.S. 1 (1929) (invalidating statutory presumption that every insolvency of a bank shall be deemed fraudulent). back
319 U.S. 463, 467–68 (1943). Compare United States v. Gainey, 380 U.S. 63 (1965) (upholding presumption from presence at site of illegal still that defendant was “carrying on” or aiding in “carrying on” its operation), with United States v. Romano, 382 U.S. 136 (1965) (voiding presumption from presence at site of illegal still that defendant had possession, custody, or control of still). back
395 U.S. 6, 36 (1969). back
395 U.S. at 37–54. Although some of the reasoning in Yee Hem, supra, was disapproved, it was factually distinguished as involving users of “hard” narcotics. back
395 U.S. at 36 n.64. The matter was also left open in Turner v. United States, 396 U.S. 398 (1970) (judged by either “rational connection” or “reasonable doubt,” a presumption that the possessor of heroin knew it was illegally imported was valid, but the same presumption with regard to cocaine was invalid under the “rational connection” test because a great deal of the substance was produced domestically), and in Barnes v. United States, 412 U.S. 837 (1973) (under either test a presumption that possession of recently stolen property, if not satisfactorily explained, is grounds for inferring possessor knew it was stolen satisfies due process). back
Ulster County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 167 (1979). back
442 U.S. at 167. back
442 U.S. at 142. The majority thought that possession was more likely than not the case from the circumstances, while the four dissenters disagreed. 442 U.S. at 168. See also Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62 (1991) (upholding a jury instruction that, to dissenting Justices O’Connor and Stevens, id. at 75, seemed to direct the jury to draw the inference that evidence that a child had been “battered” in the past meant that the defendant, the child’s father, had necessarily done the battering). back