Burrage v. United States Case Brief

Facts of the Case

Long-time drug user Banka died following an extended binge that included using heroin purchased from petitioner Burrage. Burrage pleaded not guilty to a superseding indictment alleging,, that he had unlawfully distributed heroin and that “death . . . resulted from the use of th[at] substance”–thus subjecting Burrage to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence under the penalty enhancement provision of the Controlled Substances Act,. After medical experts testified at trial that Banka might have died even if he had not taken the heroin, Burrage moved for a judgment of acquittal, arguing that Banka’s death could only “result from” heroin use if there was evidence that heroin was a but-for cause of death. The court denied the motion and, as relevant here, instructed the jury that the Government only had to prove that heroin was a contributing cause of death. The jury convicted Burrage, and the court sentenced him to 20 years. In affirming, the Eighth Circuit upheld the District Court’s jury instruction.


Is the use of a four-drug lethal injection process to carry out death sentences a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment?


“Not decided, no. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the majority opinion for the unanimous Court. The Court held that the law considers causation as a hybrid between two constituent parts: actual cause, or cause-in-fact, and legal cause, which is also known as proximate cause. Because the cause-in-fact requirement was not met in this case, the Court did not rule on whether the crime of distribution of drugs causing death required a foreseeability or proximate cause requirement. Instead, the Court focused on the specific text found in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b), the federal law requiring heightened sentences for drug sales causing death or serious bodily injury. The language in that statute requires that the death “results from” the sale of illegal drugs. Because the deceased in this case was found with multiple drugs in his system, the heroin sold by the defendant could not be considered an independently sufficient cause of death.Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment in which she objected to an analogy made in the majority opinion that compared the “results from” language in drug statutes to similar language found in Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision. Instead she cited to her dissent in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar . There, Ginsburg also dissented, arguing that the Court’s interpretation of similar language (in that case, “because of”) lacked sensitivity to real-life concerns. Despite her reservations about the Court’s statutory interpretation, she agreed with the ruling in this case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined Ginsburg’s special concurrence.”

Case Information

Citation: 571 US 204 (2014)
Granted: Apr 29, 2013
Argued: Nov 12, 2013
Decided: Jan 27, 2014
Case Brief: 2014