Martin v. Ohio, 480 U.S. 228 (1987)

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After being assaulted by her husband, the defendant killed him as he approached her. The trial court instructed the jury that it must find that the prosecution established, beyond a reasonable doubt, the following elements of aggravated murder in order to return a guilty verdict: with purpose and with prior calculation and design, causing the death of another. The jury was also instructed that although it could consider the defendant’s evidence of self-defense in determining the defendant’s guilt, she bore the burden of persuasion on proving to the jury, by a preponderance of the evidence, the defense of self-defense. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, which two state appellate courts affirmed.

Affirming the conviction, the Supreme Court ruled that since the jury could consider self-defense even if the defendant did not meet her burden of persuasion, and that proving self-defense did not disprove any of the elements of the offense, allocating the burden of persuasion to the defendant did not violate constitutional standards of due process. Although the imminence element of self-defense (requiring a defendant to believe the victim posed an imminent danger) might typically negate the element of prior calculation and design, the Court found that it would not invariably do so. As a result, constitutionally the prosecution need not bear the burden of persuasion on disproving a defense unless the defense directly and explicitly negates an element of the offense. However, Martin’s influence has been limited; most states allocate the burden of persuasion on self-defense to the prosecution.


References and Further Reading

  • Fletcher, George P. Basic Concepts of Criminal Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Robinson, Paul H. Criminal Law Defenses. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1984.

See also Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977); Self-Defense; Ulster County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140 (1979)