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Jury Instruction on Reasonable Doubt Cases In Louisiana

The trial court granted the defendant's application based upon its finding that Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39, 111 S. Ct. 328, 112 L. Ed. 2d 339 (1990), dealing with an improper jury instruction on reasonable doubt, was a new rule of law and thus could be retroactively applied to cases whose appeals were final when Cage was decided.

The court based its reasoning on Humphrey v. Cain, 138 F.3d 552 (5 Cir. 1998)(en banc), where the court found Cage could be retroactively applied.

The trial court found that the application was not barred by art. 930.8 because the decision in Cain fell within exception (2) to art. 930.8:

"The claim asserted in the petition is based upon a final ruling of an appellate court establishing a theretofore unknown interpretation of constitutional law and petitioner establishes that this interpretation is retroactively applicable to his case, and the petition is filed within one year of the finality of such ruling."

In addition, the trial court found that the lack of a contemporaneous objection to the reasonable doubt charge did not defeat the defendant's claim, citing an unpublished opinion in Wilson v. Cain, 97-1551 (E.D.La. 2/18/99).

The court then compared the reasonable doubt instruction given in this case to that given in Cage and Humphrey and found that the defendant is entitled to a new trial based upon the instruction.

The judgment rendered by the trial court encompassed not only this case and other cases pending in this court but also cases which were so old that review was sought in the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Last month, in State v. Penns, the Court rejected the very claims raised by the defendant in this case. In Penns, the Court held that while Humphrey and Wilson are persuasive authority, they are not binding on courts in this state. the Court stated:

In State v. Smith, 91-0749, p. 13 (La. 5/23/94), 637 So. 2d 398, 406, cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1045, 115 S. Ct. 641, 130 L. Ed. 2d 546 (1994), this court held that in light of Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 127 L. Ed. 2d 583, 114 S. Ct. 1239 (1994), a so-called Cage instruction, see Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39, 112 L. Ed. 2d 339, 111 S. Ct. 328 (1990)(per curiam), did not require reversal of the defendant's conviction on grounds that it diluted the state's burden of proving the accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in violation of due process guarantees. See also State v. Jarrell, 98-0707 (La. 7/2/98), 721 So. 2d 898.

We have subsequently made clear that the presence of an "articulation" requirement in a Cage instruction, the factor considered decisive by the court of appeals in Humphrey, 120 F.3d 526 at 533, also did not warrant relief. State v. Williams, 96-1023, p. 17 (La. 1/21/98), 708 So. 2d 703, 718 ("An instruction equating reasonable doubt with 'a serious doubt for which you could give a good reason' is not constitutionally infirm.") (citing Smith, 91-0749 at 2, 637 So. 2d at 399); see also State v. Brumfield, 96-2667, p. 47 (La. 10/28/98), 737 So. 2d 660, 684-85 (citing Smith).

Unless and until the United States Supreme Court resolves the status of a Cage/Humphrey instruction after Victor, our decisions in Smith and Williams, as well as our decision in State ex rel. Taylor v. Whitley, 606 So. 2d 1292 (La. 1992), (Cage not retroactively applicable to final convictions subject only to collateral attack), and not the decision in Humphrey, bind the district courts of this state in reviewing claims that trial judges have read erroneous instructions on reasonable doubt. State v. Penns.