Yates v. Evatt

LOCATION:Where police chase began

DOCKET NO.: 89-7691
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 500 US 391 (1991)
ARGUED: Jan 08, 1991
DECIDED: May 28, 1991

David I. Bruck – on behalf of the Petitioner
Miller W. Shealy, Jr. – on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for Yates v. Evatt

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

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

David H. Souter:

The second of the two cases is Yates versus Evatt 89-7691.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of South Carolina to determine whether burden-shifting jury instructions in a criminal case were harmless error.

The petitioner and another man robbed a store in Greenville County, South Carolina.

The petitioner’s colleague killed a woman during the course of the robbery, and the petitioner was charged as an accomplice murder.

At his trial, petitioner’s jury was instructed that in determining whether the killer acted with malice in stabbing the victim.

Malice is implied or presumed from either the willful, deliberate, or intentional doing of an unlawful act or from the use of a deadly weapon.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina identified these instructions is unconstitutional burden-shifting presumptions under this court’s decisions in Sandstrom and Montana, and Francis and Franklin.

The State Supreme Court correctly held that the presumptions were nonetheless subject to harmless error review under the standard articulated in Chapman and California, in which we held that a constitutional error is harmless if it appears beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we hold that in applying the standard to a jury instruction raising an unconstitutional presumption.

The court must first look to the entire jury instructions as a guide to determine what evidence the jury actually considered on the subject matter addressed by the presumption.

The reviewing court must then weigh the probative evidence, probative force of that evidence, as against the force of the presumption standing alone.

In order to meet the test of harmless error, it is not enough that the jury considered evidence from which it could have reached the verdict without reliance on the presumption.

The issue is whether the jury actually rested its verdict on evidence establishing the presumed fact beyond reasonable doubt independently of the presumption.

State Supreme Court in this case employed a deficient standard of review.

Its stated inquiry was to determine whether it is beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have found it unnecessary to rely on the erroneous mandatory presumption regarding malice.

This inquiry can determine that the verdict could have been the same without the presumptions when there was sufficient evidence to support the verdict independently of the presumptions’ effect.

But it does not satisfy Champan’s concerns because it fails to determine whether the jury’s verdict did rest on that evidence as well as on the presumptions.

It fails to determine whether that evidence was of such a compelling force as to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the presumptions must have made no difference in reaching the verdict.

The decision below must, therefore, be reversed on this ground.

Because this case has already been to this court and had been remanded twice, once for harmless error analysis.

We have decided to make our own assessment of the harmlessness of the jury instructions on malice and we hold that they were not harmless.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of South Carolina is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with our opinion.

Justice Scalia has filed a separate opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment in which Justice Blackmun has joined in part.