Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977)

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Observing his wife partially undressed with a man, the defendant killed him. The defendant was charged with murder, which contains the two elements of intending to cause the death of another and causing the death of another. The trial court instructed the jury that to hold the defendant guilty of murder it must find that the prosecution established every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury was also instructed that if it believed that the defendant established, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he killed under an extreme emotional disturbance (EED), then it could only find the defendant guilty of the lesser offense of manslaughter. The jury returned a guilty verdict for murder, which two state appellate courts affirmed.

Upon appeal to the Supreme Court, the defendant argued that the trial court’s jury instruction was an unconstitutional violation of due process by requiring the defendant to disprove his guilt. Affirming the conviction, the Court ruled that, constitutionally, the prosecution need only bear the burden of persuasion to establish every element of the offense but need not disprove a defense unless the defense negates an element of the offense. Because EED negates neither element of murder, the defendant bears the burden of persuasion on the defense. The danger Patterson poses to a defendant’s presumption of innocence is that a state might choose to reclassify traditional elements of an offense as defenses and thereby allocate the burden of persuasion on those elements to the defendant.


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 Martin v. Ohio, 480 U.S. 228 (1987); Proof beyond a Reasonable Doubt; Self-Defense; Ulster County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140 (1979)