Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979)

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Along with In Re Winship and Mullaney v. Wilbur, Sandstrom, was one of a triumvirate of cases decided in the 1970s that strengthened protection for criminal defendants by strictly holding the government to its Burden of Proof beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases. In Sandstrom the defendant had been convicted in Montana of deliberate homicide and appealed an instruction to the jury that the ‘‘law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts.’’ He argued that this instruction invited the jury to presume that the requisite intent existed rather than to find that the state had proven it. Justice William J. Brennan, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, noted that even though the instruction did not involve a conclusive presumption, as was the case in Mullaney, the jury nevertheless could have interpreted it as shifting the burden to the defendant to prove that he had not acted voluntarily. Such burden shifting, the Court concluded, was unconstitutional, because it did not comply with due process. In so ruling the Court expanded the application of Mullaney to permissive as well as conclusive evidentiary presumptions. However, the due process protection extended in Sandstrom was later diminished by the Court’s holding in Rose v. Clark that such an instruction, while unconstitutional, could nevertheless constitute ‘‘harmless error.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Leahy, William J., and Brownlow M. Speer, An End to Burden-Shifting Presumptions: The Signal Criminal Law Achievement of the Post-Warren Court, Dec. Boston Bar Journal 35 (1991): 10–14.
  • Mueller, Christopher B., and Laird C. Kirkpatrick. Evidence. 3rd Ed., New York: Aspen Publishers, 2003, pp. 130–149.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • In Re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)
  • Mullaney v. Wilber, 421 U.S. 684 (1975)
  • Rose v. Clark, 478 U.S. 570 (1986)

See also Due Process; In Re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970); Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684 (1975); Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977); Proof beyond a Reasonable Doubt; Self-Defense