Defective Jury Instructions Example Cases

In Sullivan v. Louisana (1993), the jury was given a constitutionally defective reasonable doubt instruction, which equated "reasonable doubt" with "grave uncertainty" and "actual substantial doubt," and required a "moral certainty" of guilt. (Sullivan v. Louisana, supra, 508 U.S. 275, 277 113 S. Ct. 2078, 2080; Cage v. Louisana (1990) 498 U.S. 39, 41 111 S. Ct. 328, 329-330, 112 L. Ed. 2d 339.) The court reasoned that as a result of the instruction there was no jury verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Any attempt at review for harmless error could only hypothesize a guilty verdict conforming to the constitutionally required standard of proof. Such an exercise by an appellate court would deprive the defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to have a jury decide his fate. (Sullivan v. Louisana, supra, 508 U.S. at pp. 279-280 113 S. Ct. at pp. 2081-2082.) This instructional error qualified as a "structural error" of the kind that defies analysis by harmless-error standards. (Id. at pp. 281-282 113 S. Ct. at pp. 2082-2083.) The Sullivan court recognized, however, that most constitutional errors are subject to harmless-error analysis. (Sullivan v. Louisana, supra, 508 U.S. at p. 279 113 S. Ct. at pp. 2081-2082; see also Neder v. United States (1999) 527 U.S. 1, 8 119 S. Ct. 1827, 1833, 144 L. Ed. 2d 35.) The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Chapman test may be applied to verdicts rendered by juries instructed on mandatory presumptions violating the defendant's right to proof beyond a reasonable doubt of each element of the charged offense. (E.g., Yates v. Evatt, supra, 500 U.S. at p. 403 111 S. Ct. at pp. 1892-1893; Carella v. California (1989) 491 U.S. 263, 267 109 S. Ct. 2419, 2421-2422, 105 L. Ed. 2d 218; Rose v. Clark (1986) 478 U.S. 570, 579-581 106 S. Ct. 3101, 3106-3107, 92 L. Ed. 2d 460.) We see no reason for different treatment of instructional error involving a permissive inference. Unlike the defective reasonable doubt instruction in Sullivan, an instruction permitting the jury to infer guilt from propensity does not necessarily vitiate the jury's verdict. It is a trial error rather than a structural error. (See People v. Flood, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at p. 503.)