Yates v. Evatt - Oral Argument - January 08, 1991

Yates v. Evatt

Media for Yates v. Evatt

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 28, 1991 in Yates v. Evatt

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 08, 1991 in Yates v. Evatt

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 89-7691, Dale Robert Yates v. Parker Evatt, Commissioner, South Carolina Department of Corrections, et al.--

Mr. Bruck, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

David I. Bruck:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case appears here for the third time.

On two prior occasions this Court has ordered the South Carolina Supreme Court in this capital murder case to grant the relief which Federal law requires.

On its third consideration, the second remand by this Court, the South Carolina Supreme Court has now, by a 3 to 2 vote, held the two unconstitutional burden-shifting jury presumptions of an essential element of malice in this case to be harmless error, and the propriety of that harmless error determination is now the issue before this Court today.

The case, as the Court is already well aware, involves an accomplice liability prosecution in which Dale Yates was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a homicide which was committed by his accomplice, one Henry Davis, during the course of a robbery, after the time when Yates had already yelled to Davis to leave the scene, had himself left the store, and was either waiting in the car outside or had already fled the area.

Davis, of course, was then shot to death by the sole surviving witness to the homicide, one Willie Wood, moments after the decedent was stabbed and died.

The State supreme court has found the instructions on malice to have been harmless error on the grounds that identifying really for the first time 8 years after the trial the real issue in the case to have been whether or not Davis, the actual killer, entertained malice, and not whether Mr. Yates entertained malice.

And then having thus, shall we say clarified, and I would submit really changed the issue that was placed before the jury at trial, into one concerning whether Davis entertained malice when he killed the victim, the court then simply grossly misread the simple record facts before the jury in order to find that malice... that Davis' malice was overwhelmingly proven.

The particular misreadings, I think, which provide the simplest and best basis upon which this case should be decided are simply that the State supreme court found that Davis lunged at Mrs. Wood with his knife, and that he inflicted a multiple stabbing which resulted in her death.

In fact the record contains no evidence that Davis lunged at Mrs. Wood.

Indeed the very vague and unclear and unsatisfactory evidence from Willie Wood, the only surviving witness, indicates that it was Mrs. Wood who reached for or grabbed Mr. Davis from the side or from the rear, and then seconds later she was stabbed through the heart.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

At this point or at some convenient point in your argument could you comment on the argument of the amicus that once evidence of the use of the knife is introduced the presumption of malice disappears under State law in any event?

I take it I am characterizing that argument correctly.

David I. Bruck:


Of course, I think that is a rather belated attempt to save what is... in any event what the South Carolina Supreme Court has found to be a burden-shifting and unconstitutional mandatory rebuttable presumption of malice.

The... and I would note, of course, that the State, as respondent, has made no such argument in this case, either in the brief in opposition or in their brief.

But in any event, if the Court were to wish to revisit that underlying claim, I think one would be forced to conclude that there is... to say that in a case in which the defendant was not present when the killing occurred, when there was only one witness, the State's witness, who himself did not see... Willie Wood did not see the stabbing.

So it is not fair to say that the... that... it cannot fairly be said that the circumstances attending the use of the knife were brought out in evidence.

They were not.

No one knows exactly how the knife was used, whether Mrs. Wood was stabbed when she lunged at Henry Davis, whether he was flailing in some way trying to get away from the man that was about to put five bullets in him and kill him when he accidentally stabbed Mrs. Wood.

All of these things are quite possible, but we simply don't know.

So as far as the amicus, this... they call it a bursting bubble.

I think the real term is a fly away presumption.

Antonin Scalia:

But at least as for Yates you certainly... I'm not sure that you don't know enough about the use of the weapon with respect to Davis.

You may well know enough.

You certainly... it doesn't say how many circumstances of its use have to be introduced, the instruction to the jury.

It just says once the circumstances--

David I. Bruck: