YATES V. EVATT, 500 U. S. 391 (1991)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Yates v. Evatt, 500 U.S. 391 (1991)

Yates v. Evatt

No. 89-7691

Argued Jan. 8, 1991

Decided May 28, 1991

500 U.S. 391


Petitioner Yates and Henry Davis robbed a South Carolina grocery store owned by Willie Wood. After Yates wounded Wood, he fled the store, but Davis remained, struggling with Wood. When Wood's mother entered the store and grabbed Davis, he stabbed her once, killing her. Wood then killed Davis. Subsequently, Yates was arrested and charged, inter alia, with accomplice murder. At his trial, the State argued that Yates and Davis had planned to rob the store and kill any witnesses, thus making Yates as guilty of the murder as Davis under South Carolina law, because it was a probable or natural consequence of the robbery. As to the element of malice, the judge instructed the jury, among other things, that "malice is implied or presumed" from either the "willful, deliberate, and intentional doing of an unlawful act" or from the "use of a deadly weapon." Yates was convicted, and his conviction was upheld by the State Supreme Court. He then sought a writ of habeas corpus from that court, asserting that the presumption on the use of a deadly weapon was an unconstitutional burden-shifting instruction under, inter alia, this Court's decisions in Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U. S. 510, and Francs v. Franklin, 471 U. S. 307, which found that similar jury instructions violated the Due Process Clause. Twice the court denied relief, and twice this Court remanded the case for further consideration in light of Francis. On the second remand, the state court again denied relief, holding that, although unconstitutional, both instructions allowing the jury to presume malice were harmless error. It found that its enquiry 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 the element of malice."

Concluding that the State relied on Davis' malice to prove murder, the court found that the jury did not have to rely on the malice presumptions, because the facts showed that Davis had acted with malice when he "lunged" at Mrs. Wood and stabbed her multiple times.


1. The State Supreme Court failed to apply the proper harmless error standard, as stated in Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18, 386 U. S. 24, which held that an error is harmless if it appears "beyond a reasonable doubt

Page 500 U. S. 392

that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained." Pp. 500 U. S. 400-407.

(a) An error does "not contribute to a verdict" only if it is unimportant in relation to everything else the jury considered on the issue in question, as revealed in the record. In applying Chapman, a court must first ask what evidence the jury actually considered in reaching its verdict, and it must then weigh the probative force of that evidence as against the probative force of the presumption standing alone. 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 a reasonable doubt, independently of the presumption. Before looking to the entire trial record to assess the significance of the erroneous presumption, however, it is crucial to ascertain from the jury instructions that the jurors, as reasonable persons, would have considered that entire trial record. Pp. 500 U. S. 402-406.

(b) The State Supreme Court employed a deficient standard of review. Its stated enquiry can determine that the verdict could have been the same without the presumptions, when there was evidence sufficient to support the verdict independently of the presumptions' effect. However, it does not satisfy Chapman's concerns, because it fails to determine whether the jury's verdict did rest on that evidence as well as on the presumptions, or whether that evidence was of such compelling force as to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the presumptions must have made no difference in reaching the verdict. Pp. 500 U. S. 406-407.

2. The jury instructions may not be excused as harmless error. Pp. 500 U. S. 407-411.

(a) Judicial economy is best served if this Court makes its own assessment of the errors' harmlessness in the first instance, because this case has already been remanded twice, once for such an analysis. See Rose v. Clark, 478 U. S. 570, 478 U. S. 584. P. 500 U. S. 407.

(b) The trial judge instructed the jury that malice is the equivalent of an intent to kill. While it can be inferred from the instructions and the record that the jury considered all of the evidence regarding Davis' intent to kill, it cannot be inferred beyond a reasonable doubt that the unlawful presumptions did not contribute to the finding on the necessary element of malice that Davis intended to kill Mrs. Wood, since the evidentiary record is simply not clear on that issue. While an examination of the entire record reveals clear evidence of Davis' intent to kill Willie Wood, the jury was not instructed on a transferred intent theory and, thus, this Court is barred from treating such evidence as underlying the necessary finding of intent to kill Mrs. Wood. The specific circumstances of Mrs. Wood's death do not indicate Davis' malice in killing her

Page 500 U. S. 393

so convincingly that it can be said beyond a reasonable doubt that the jurors rested a finding of his malice on that evidence exclusive of the presumptions. The record does not support the state court's description of Davis as having "lunged" at her and stabbed her multiple times. The record reveals only that she joined in a struggle and died from a single stab wound, which Davis could have inflicted inadvertently. Pp. 500 U. S. 407-411.

301 S.C. 214, 391 S.E.2d 530, reversed and remanded.

SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, in all but Part III of which BLACKMUN, J., joined, and in all but footnote 6 and Part III of which SCALIA, J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in Part B of which BLACKMUN, J., joined.

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