Sullivan v. Louisiana

LOCATION: White House

DOCKET NO.: 92-5129
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: Louisiana Supreme Court

CITATION: 508 US 275 (1993)
ARGUED: Mar 29, 1993
DECIDED: Jun 01, 1993

Jack Peebles - on behalf of the Respondent
John Wilson Reed - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Sullivan v. Louisiana

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 29, 1993 in Sullivan v. Louisiana

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 92-5129, John Sullivan v. Louisiana.

Mr. Reed.

John Wilson Reed:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

When the State of Louisiana undertook to charge and accuse John Sullivan with murder, John Sullivan had the right to have the truth of that accusation determined by a jury and to have the truth of that accusation determined by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

When the State of Louisiana at trial undertook to prove that accusation by reliance on a professed accomplice, possibly beaten by the police at the time of his arrest in return for his original statement, held in jail for 2 years until the day of trial, and promised his freedom, his immunity, and his release upon his giving testimony in this case, John Sullivan had the right to have the credibility of that witness, in light of the other evidence of the case, tested and determined by a jury, and tested and determined by a jury by the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

John Sullivan did not receive that right.

3 years ago, this Court held in Cage v. Louisiana that John Sullivan had not received that right.

The Louisiana supreme court below held that John Sullivan had not received that right, and below the State conceded that John Sullivan had not received the right to a jury's determination by the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt because the jury instruction provided that a jury could convict not only on a standard of proof lower than that required by due process but by a standard... on a standard of jury certainty below that required by due process.

So John Sullivan comes before this Court on direct appeal, on a conviction of murder, still subject in further proceedings, to the possibility of a sentence of death, without what this Court has called in Herrera a judgment of legal guilt.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Reed, what was the disposition made by the supreme court of Louisiana of the sentence imposed on Sullivan?

John Wilson Reed:

The Louisiana supreme court, Your Honor, vacated the sentence of death on the grounds that Mr. Sullivan's attorney had been ineffective in his representation during the penalty phase and leaves to further proceedings the possibility of reimposing that.

Presumably there will be a new sentencing proceeding, and would be in the absence of action by this Court.

The jury in this case was not asked the right question.

The question to be asked of a jury in a criminal trial is whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and whether the jurors possess that subjective certainty beyond a reasonable doubt, and the jury not having been asked the right question, necessarily the jury by its verdict cannot be said to have answered that question.

The jury did not answer that question, and so the case went before the Louisiana supreme court, where the Louisiana supreme court, acknowledging the error, answered the question itself, and that is what the Sixth Amendment prohibits courts from doing by an application of an ordinary kind of harmless error test, which I would suggest was not applied in any way that could be considered correct in this case in any event.

The Louisiana supreme court made its own findings of credibility on a cold record, disregarded the testimony the bartender eyewitness Lowrey, and instead rested its... its conclusion on the testimony of the accomplice, Hillhouse, finding that the testimony of that accomplice was unrefuted.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, Mr. Reed, if there were a case in which the evidence were just crystal clear... there's a confession by the defendant, there are five eyewitnesses who testified, there are finger print evidence and so forth, no one could disagree that the evidence is overwhelming... is it possible in such a case that an appellate court could review it and conclude that no reasonable juror would have been able to do anything but find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?

John Wilson Reed:

Your Honor asks, of course, the hardest question, and I think the principal answer to that question, in light of the Sixth Amendment, has to be no, so long as the defendant was in fact relying on the jury's finding of facts beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Do you rely on the right of the jury to nullify any verdicts--

John Wilson Reed:

No, Your Honor, I do not.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--Any juror could--

John Wilson Reed:


Sandra Day O'Connor:

--For any reason--

John Wilson Reed:

No, I do not rely on jury nullification.

I think that that lurks in the background here, but that is not an express part of our argument at all.

In a case such as the one Your Honor suggested, if there were defenses that were raised by a defendant perhaps of self-defense, perhaps of justification, perhaps the Patterson v. New York kind of defense, the defense of insanity, the defendant not only confesses but gets on the witness stand and admits the elements of the offense, then I would suggest you could apply a harmless error analysis because in those cases the reasonable doubt fact-finding process might not be relied upon by the defendant.

He might be relying on some affirmative defense determined by a different standard, but I think principle requires that in Your Honor's case that the Sixth Amendment prohibit a finding of harmless error if the defendant is indeed submitting questions of fact to the jury by the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

It may be that there are such obvious cases.

They will be very few, I would think, and even when you see cases where things are on videotape, nevertheless people and juries and lawyers advocating cases to juries--

William H. Rehnquist:

--But Mr. Reed, in most States... I don't know if it's true in Louisiana or not... the defendant simply enters a plea of not guilty.