CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MONTANA.
Brennan, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Rehnquist, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Burger, C. J., joined, post, p. 527.
MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question presented is whether, in a case in which intent is an element of the crime charged; the jury instruction, "the law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts," violates the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the State prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt.
On November 22, 1976, 18-year-old David Sandstrom confessed to the slaying of Annie Jessen. Based upon the confession and corroborating evidence, petitioner was charged on December 2 with "deliberate homicide," Mont. Code Ann. § 45-5-102 (1978), in that he "purposely or knowingly caused the death of Annie Jessen." App. 3.*fn1 At trial, Sandstrom's attorney informed the jury that, although his client admitted killing Jessen, he did not do so "purposely or knowingly," and was therefore not guilty of "deliberate homicide" but of a lesser crime. Id., at 6-8. The basic support for this contention was the testimony of two court-appointed mental health experts, each of whom described for the jury petitioner's mental state at the time of the incident. Sandstrom's attorney argued that this testimony demonstrated that petitioner, due to a personality disorder aggravated by alcohol consumption, did not kill Annie Jessen "purposely or knowingly."*fn2
The prosecution requested the trial judge to instruct the jury that "[the] law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." Petitioner's counsel objected, arguing that "the instruction has the effect of shifting the burden of proof on the issue of" purpose or knowledge to the defense, and that "that is impermissible under the Federal Constitution, due process of law." Id., at 34. He offered to provide a number of federal decisions in support of the objection, including this Court's holding in Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684 (1975), but was told by the judge: "You can give those to the Supreme Court. The objection is overruled." App. 34. The instruction was delivered, the jury found petitioner guilty of deliberate homicide, id., at 38, and petitioner was sentenced to 100 years in prison.
Sandstrom appealed to the Supreme Court of Montana, again contending that the instruction shifted to the defendant the burden of disproving an element of the crime charged, in violation of Mullaney v. Wilbur, supra, In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970), and Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977). The Montana court conceded that these cases did prohibit shifting the burden of proof to the defendant by means of a presumption, but held that the cases "do not prohibit allocation of some burden of proof to a defendant under certain circumstances." 176 Mont. 492, 497, 580 P. 2d 106, 109 (1978). Since in the court's view, "[defendant's] sole burden under instruction No. 5 was to produce some evidence that he did not intend the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts, not to disprove that he acted 'purposely' or 'knowingly,' . . . the instruction does not violate due process
standards as defined by the United States or Montana Constitution . . . ." Ibid. (emphasis added).
Both federal and state courts have held, under a variety of rationales, that the giving of an instruction similar to that challenged here is fatal to the validity of a criminal conviction.*fn3 We granted certiorari, 439 U.S. 1067 (1979), to decide the important question of the instruction's constitutionality. We reverse.
The threshold inquiry in ascertaining the constitutional analysis applicable to this kind of jury instruction is to determine the nature of the presumption it describes. See Ulster County Court v. Allen, ante, at 157-163. That determination requires careful attention to the words actually spoken to the jury, see ante, at 157-159, n. 16, for whether a defendant has been accorded his constitutional rights depends upon the way in which a reasonable juror could have interpreted the instruction.
Respondent argues, first, that the instruction merely described a permissive inference -- that is, it allowed but did not require the jury to draw conclusions about defendant's intent from his actions -- and that such inferences are constitutional. Brief for Respondent 3, 15. These arguments need not detain us long, for even respondent admits that "it's possible" that
the jury believed they were required to apply the presumption. Tr. of Oral Arg. 28. Sandstrom's jurors were told that "[the[ law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts." They were not told that they had a choice, or that they might infer that conclusion; they were told only that the law presumed it. It is clear that a reasonable juror could easily have viewed such an instruction as mandatory. See generally United States v. Wharton, 139 U. S. App. D.C. 293, 298, 433 F.2d 451, ...