CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT.
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. 327. Rehnquist, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Burger, C. J., and O'connor, J., joined, post, p. 331.
JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case requires that we decide whether certain jury instructions in a criminal prosecution in which intent is an element of the crime charged and the only contested issue at trial satisfy the principles of Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979). Specifically, we must evaluate jury instructions stating that: (1) "[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" and (2) "[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." App. 8a-9a. The question is whether these instructions, when read in the context of the jury charge as a whole, violate the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the State prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. See Sandstrom, supra; In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970).
Respondent Raymond Lee Franklin, then 21 years old and imprisoned for offenses unrelated to this case, sought to escape custody on January 17, 1979, while he and three other prisoners were receiving dental care at a local dentist's office. The four prisoners were secured by handcuffs to the same 8-foot length of chain as they sat in the dentist's waiting room. At some point Franklin was released from the chain,
taken into the dentist's office and given preliminary treatment, and then escorted back to the waiting room. As another prisoner was being released, Franklin, who had not been reshackled, seized a pistol from one of the two officers and managed to escape. He forced the dentist's assistant to accompany him as a hostage.
In the parking lot Franklin found the dentist's automobile, the keys to which he had taken before escaping, but was unable to unlock the door. He then fled with the dental assistant after refusing her request to be set free. The two set out across an open clearing and came upon a local resident. Franklin demanded this resident's car. When the resident responded that he did not own one, Franklin made no effort to harm him but continued with the dental assistant until they came to the home of the victim, one Collie. Franklin pounded on the heavy wooden front door of the home and Collie, a retired 72-year-old carpenter, answered. Franklin was pointing the stolen pistol at the door when Collie arrived. As Franklin demanded his car keys, Collie slammed the door. At this moment Franklin's gun went off. The bullet traveled through the wooden door and into Collie's chest killing him. Seconds later the gun fired again. The second bullet traveled upward through the door and into the ceiling of the residence.
Hearing the shots, the victim's wife entered the front room. In the confusion accompanying the shooting, the dental assistant fled and Franklin did not attempt to stop her. Franklin entered the house, demanded the car keys from the victim's wife, and added the threat "I might as well kill you." When she did not provide the keys, however, he made no effort to thwart her escape. Franklin then stepped outside and encountered the victim's adult daughter. He repeated his demand for car keys but made no effort to stop the daughter when she refused the demand and fled. Failing to obtain a car, Franklin left and remained at large until nightfall.
Shortly after being captured, Franklin made a formal statement to the authorities in which he admitted that he had
shot the victim but emphatically denied that he did so voluntarily or intentionally. He claimed that the shots were fired in accidental response to the slamming of the door. He was tried in the Superior Court of Bibb County, Georgia, on charges of malice murder*fn1 -- a capital offense in Georgia -- and kidnaping. His sole defense to the malice murder charge was a lack of the requisite intent to kill. To support his version of the events Franklin offered substantial circumstantial evidence tending to show a lack of intent. He claimed that the circumstances surrounding the firing of the gun, particularly the slamming of the door and the trajectory of the second bullet, supported the hypothesis of accident, and that his immediate confession to that effect buttressed the assertion. He also argued that his treatment of every other person encountered during the escape indicated a lack of disposition to use force.
On the dispositive issue of intent, the trial judge instructed the jury as follows:
"A crime is a violation of a statute of this State in which there shall be a union of joint operation of act or omission to act, and intention or criminal negligence. A person shall not be found guilty of any crime committed by misfortune or accident where it satisfactorily appears there was no criminal scheme or undertaking or intention or criminal negligence. 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, that is, the Jury, may find criminal intention upon a consideration of the words, conduct, demeanor, motive and all other circumstances connected with the act for which the accused is prosecuted." App. 8a-9a.
Approximately one hour after the jury had received the charge and retired for deliberation, it returned to the courtroom and requested reinstruction on the element of intent and the definition of accident. Id., at 13a-14a. Upon receiving the requested reinstruction, the jury deliberated 10 more minutes and returned a verdict of guilty. The next day Franklin was sentenced to death for the murder conviction.
Franklin unsuccessfully appealed the conviction and sentence to the Georgia Supreme Court. Franklin v. State, 245 Ga. 141, 263 S. E. 2d 666, cert. denied, 447 U.S. 930 (1980). He then unsuccessfully sought state post-conviction relief. See Franklin v. Zant, Habeas Corpus File No. 5025 (Super. Ct. Butts Cty., Ga., Sept. 10, 1981), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 938 (1982). Having exhausted state post-conviction remedies, Franklin sought federal habeas corpus relief, pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 2254, in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia on May 14, 1982. That court denied the application without an evidentiary hearing. App. 16a.
Franklin appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court and ordered that the writ issue. 720 F.2d 1206 (1983). The court held that the jury charge on the dispositive issue of intent could have been interpreted by a reasonable juror as a mandatory presumption that shifted to the defendant a burden of persuasion on the intent element of the offense. For this reason the court held that the jury charge ran afoul of fundamental Fourteenth Amendment due process guarantees as explicated in Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979). See 720 F.2d, at 1208-1212. In denying
petitioner Francis' subsequent petition for rehearing, the panel elaborated its earlier holding to make clear that the effect of the presumption at issue had been considered in the context of the jury charge as a whole. See 723 F.2d 770, 771-772 (1984) (per curiam).
We granted certiorari. 467 U.S. 1225 (1984). We affirm.
The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged." In re Winship, 397 U.S., at 364. This "bedrock, 'axiomatic and elementary' [constitutional] principle," id., at 363, prohibits the State from using evidentiary presumptions in a jury charge that have the effect of relieving the State of its burden of persuasion beyond a reasonable doubt of every essential element of a crime. Sandstrom v. Montana, supra, at 520-524; Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 210, 215 (1977); Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 698-701 (1975); see also Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 274-275 (1952). The prohibition protects the "fundamental value determination of our society," given voice in Justice Harlan's concurrence in Winship, that "it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free." 397 U.S., at 372. See Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525-526 (1958). The question before the Court in this case is almost identical to that before the Court in Sandstrom : "whether the challenged jury instruction had the effect of relieving the State of the burden of proof enunciated in Winship on the critical question of . . . state of mind," 442 U.S., at 521, by creating a mandatory presumption of intent upon proof by the State of other elements of the offense.
The analysis is straightforward. "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." Id., at 514. The court must determine whether the challenged portion of the instruction creates a mandatory presumption, see id., at 520-524, or merely a permissive inference, see Ulster County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 157-163 (1979). A mandatory presumption instructs the jury that it must infer the presumed fact if the State proves certain predicate facts.*fn2 A permissive inference suggests to the jury a possible conclusion to be drawn if the State proves predicate facts, but does not require the jury to draw that conclusion.*fn2
Mandatory presumptions must be measured against the standards of Winship as elucidated in Sandstrom. Such presumptions violate the Due Process Clause if they relieve the State of the burden of persuasion on an element of an offense. Patterson v. New York, supra, at 215 ("[A] State must prove every ingredient of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt and . . . may not shift the burden of proof to the defendant by presuming that ingredient upon proof of the other elements of the offense"). See also Sandstrom, supra, at 520-524; Mullaney v. Wilbur, supra, at 698-701.*fn3 A permissive inference does not relieve the State of its burden of persuasion because it still requires the State to convince the jury that the suggested conclusion should be inferred based on the predicate facts proved. Such inferences do not necessarily implicate the concerns of Sandstrom. A permissive inference violates the Due Process Clause only if the suggested
conclusion is not one that reason and common sense justify in light of the proven facts before the jury. Ulster County Court, supra, at 157-163.
Analysis must focus initially on the specific language challenged, but the inquiry does not end there. If a specific portion of the jury charge, considered in isolation, could reasonably have been understood as creating a presumption that relieves the State of its burden of persuasion on an element of an offense, the potentially offending words must be considered in the context of the charge as a whole. Other instructions might explain the particular infirm language to the extent that a reasonable juror could not have considered the charge to have created an unconstitutional presumption. Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 147 (1973). This analysis "requires careful attention to the words actually spoken to the jury . . . , for whether a defendant has been accorded his constitutional rights depends upon the way in which a reasonable juror could have interpreted the instruction." Sandstrom, supra, at 514.
Franklin levels his constitutional attack at the following two sentences in the jury charge: "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." App. 8a-9a.*fn4 The Georgia Supreme Court has interpreted this language as creating no more than a permissive inference that comports with the constitutional standards of Ulster County Court v. Allen, supra. See Skrine v. State, 244 Ga. 520, 521, 260 S. E. 2d 900, 901 (1979). The question, however, is not what the State Supreme Court declares the meaning of the charge to be, but
rather what a reasonable juror could have understood the charge as meaning. Sandstrom, 442 U.S., at 516-517 (state court "is not the final authority on the interpretation which a jury could have given the instruction"). The federal constitutional question is whether a reasonable juror could have understood the two sentences as a mandatory presumption that shifted to the defendant the burden of persuasion on the element of intent once the State had proved the predicate acts.
The challenged sentences are cast in the language of command. They instruct the jury that "acts of a person of sound mind and discretion are presumed to be the product of the person's will," and that a person " is presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of his acts," App. 8a-9a (emphasis added). These words carry precisely the message of the language condemned in Sandstrom, 442 U.S., at 515 ("'The law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts'"). The jurors "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." Ibid. (emphasis added). The portion of the jury charge challenged in this case directs the jury to presume an essential element of the offense -- intent to kill -- upon proof of other elements of the offense -- the act of slaying another. In this way the instructions "undermine the factfinder's responsibility at trial, based on evidence adduced by the State, to find the ultimate facts beyond a reasonable doubt." Ulster County Court v. Allen, supra, at 156 (emphasis added).
The language challenged here differs from Sandstrom, of course, in that the jury in this case was explicitly informed that the presumptions "may be rebutted." App. 8a-9a. The State makes much of this additional aspect of the instruction in seeking to differentiate the present case from Sandstrom. This distinction does not suffice, however, to cure the infirmity in the charge. Though the Court in Sandstrom
acknowledged that the instructions there challenged could have been reasonably understood as creating an irrebuttable presumption, 442 U.S., at 517, it was not on this basis alone that the instructions were invalidated. Had the jury reasonably understood the instructions as creating a mandatory rebuttable presumption the instructions would have been no less constitutionally infirm. Id., at 520-524.
An irrebuttable or conclusive presumption relieves the State of its burden of persuasion by removing the presumed element from the case entirely if the State proves the predicate facts. A mandatory rebuttable presumption does not remove the presumed element from the case if the State proves the predicate facts, but it nonetheless relieves the State of the affirmative burden of persuasion on the presumed element by instructing the jury that it must find the presumed element unless the defendant persuades the jury not to make such a finding. A mandatory rebuttable presumption is perhaps less onerous from the defendant's perspective, but it is no less unconstitutional. Our cases make clear that "[such] shifting of the burden of persuasion with respect to a fact which the State deems so important that it must be either proved or presumed is impermissible under the Due Process Clause." Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S., at 215. In Mullaney v. Wilbur we explicitly held unconstitutional a mandatory rebuttable presumption that shifted to the defendant a burden of persuasion on the question of intent. 421 U.S., at 698-701. And in Sandstrom we similarly held that instructions that might reasonably have been understood by the jury as creating a mandatory rebuttable presumption were unconstitutional. 442 U.S., at 524.*fn5
When combined with the immediately preceding mandatory language, the instruction that the presumptions "may be rebutted" could reasonably be read as telling the jury that it was required to infer intent to kill as the natural and probable consequence of the act of firing the gun unless the defendant persuaded the jury that such an inference was unwarranted. The very statement that the presumption "may be rebutted" could have indicated to a reasonable juror that the defendant bore an affirmative burden of persuasion once the State proved the underlying act giving rise to the ...