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Cage v. Louisiana

U.S.
Nov 13, 1990
498 U.S. 39 (1990)

Summary

holding unconstitutional a differently worded instruction that used the terms "grave uncertainty," "actual substantial doubt," and "moral certainty," and that was not surrounded by other, correct instructions that gave content to those terms

Summary of this case from Leavitt v. Arave

Opinion

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF LOUISIANA

No. 89-7302

Decided November 13, 1990

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364. Petitioner Cage was convicted in Louisiana of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. In his trial's guilt phase, the jury was instructed that guilt must be found beyond a reasonable doubt, that reasonable doubt was "such doubt as would give rise to a grave uncertainty" and "an actual substantial doubt," and that what was required was a "moral certainty." In affirming Cage's conviction, the State Supreme Court rejected his argument that, inter alia, the instruction violated the Due Process Clause, and concluded that, "taking the charge as a whole," reasonable persons would understand the reasonable doubt definition.

Held: The instruction was contrary to the "beyond a reasonable doubt" requirement articulated in Winship. The words "substantial" and "grave" suggest a higher degree of doubt than is required for acquittal under the reasonable doubt standard. When those statements are then considered with the reference to "moral," rather than evidentiary, certainty, a reasonable juror, taking the charge as a whole, could have interpreted the instruction to allow a finding of guilt based on a degree of proof below that required by the Due Process Clause.

Certiorari granted; 554 So.2d 39, reversed and remanded.


The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted.

In state criminal trials, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970); see also Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 315-316 (1979). This reasonable doubt standard "plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure." Winship, 397 U.S., at 363. Among other things, "[i]t is a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error." Ibid. The issue before us is whether the reasonable doubt instruction in this case complied with Winship.

Petitioner was convicted in a Louisiana trial court of first-degree murder, and was sentenced to death. He appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, arguing, inter alia, that the reasonable doubt instruction used in the guilt phase of his trial was constitutionally defective. The instruction provided in relevant part:

"If you entertain a reasonable doubt as to any fact or element necessary to constitute the defendant's guilt, it is your duty to give him the benefit of that doubt and return a verdict of not guilty. Even where the evidence demonstrates a probability of guilt, if it does not establish such guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, you must acquit the accused. This doubt, however, must be a reasonable one; that is one that is founded upon a real tangible substantial basis and not upon mere caprice and conjecture. It must be such doubt as would give rise to a grave uncertainty, raised in your mind by reasons of the unsatisfactory character of the evidence or lack thereof. A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt. It is an actual substantial doubt. It is a doubt that a reasonable man can seriously entertain. What is required is not an absolute or mathematical certainty, but a moral certainty." 554 So.2d 39, 41 (La. 1989) (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court of Louisiana rejected petitioner's argument. The court first observed that the use of the phrases "grave certainty" and "moral certainty" in the instruction, "if taken out of context, might overstate the requisite degree of uncertainty and confuse the jury." Ibid. But "taking the charge as a whole," the court concluded that "reasonable persons of ordinary intelligence would understand the definition of `reasonable doubt.'" Ibid. It is our view, however, that the instruction at issue was contrary to the "beyond a reasonable doubt" requirement articulated in Winship.

In construing the instruction, we consider how reasonable jurors could have understood the charge as a whole. Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S. 307, 316 (1985). The charge did at one point instruct that, to convict, guilt must be found beyond a reasonable doubt; but it then equated a reasonable doubt with a "grave uncertainty" and an "actual substantial doubt," and stated that what was required was a "moral certainty" that the defendant was guilty. It is plain to us that the words "substantial" and "grave," as they are commonly understood, suggest a higher degree of doubt than is required for acquittal under the reasonable doubt standard. When those statements are then considered with the reference to "moral certainty," rather than evidentiary certainty, it becomes clear that a reasonable juror could have interpreted the instruction to allow a finding of guilt based on a degree of proof below that required by the Due Process Clause.

Similar attempts to define reasonable doubt have been widely criticized by the Federal Courts of Appeals. See, e.g., Monk v. Zelez, 901 F.2d 885, 889-890 (CA10 1990); United States v. Moss, 756 F.2d 329, 333 (CA4 1985); United States v. Indorato, 628 F.2d 711, 720-721 (CA1 1980); United States v. Byrd, 352 F.2d 570, 575 (CA2 1965); see also Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 488 (1978).

Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Louisiana is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


Summaries of

Cage v. Louisiana

U.S.
Nov 13, 1990
498 U.S. 39 (1990)

holding unconstitutional a differently worded instruction that used the terms "grave uncertainty," "actual substantial doubt," and "moral certainty," and that was not surrounded by other, correct instructions that gave content to those terms

Summary of this case from Leavitt v. Arave

holding that a defendant's dueprocess rights were violated where a judge instructed jurors that reasonable doubt was equivalent to a "grave uncertainty" and an "actual substantial doubt" and that jurors could convict if morally certain of a defendant's guilt

Summary of this case from U.S. v. Neal

holding as unlawful instruction that reasonable doubt was "such doubt as would give rise to a grave uncertainty" and "an actual substantial doubt," and that what was required for conviction was a "moral certainty" that the defendant was guilty

Summary of this case from U.S. v. Colon-Pagan

holding that the combined effect of the phrases "such doubt as would give rise to a grave uncertainty" and "an actual substantial doubt" resulted in unconstitutional definition of "reasonable doubt"

Summary of this case from Sanders v. White

holding that a jury instruction permitting a conviction on proof less than beyond a reasonable doubt violates due process

Summary of this case from State v. Rimmer

holding that the terms “grave” and “substantial” suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Stanley v. State

holding that the terms "grave" and "substantial" suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Jackson v. State

holding that the terms ‘grave’ and ‘substantial’ suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Thompson v. State

holding that the terms ‘grave’ and ‘substantial’ suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Thompson v. State

holding that the terms "grave" and "substantial" suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Stanley v. State

holding that the terms “grave” and “substantial” suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Jackson v. State

holding unconstitutional an instruction equating reasonable doubt with "grave uncertainty" or "actual substantial doubt"

Summary of this case from State v. Hester

holding that the terms `grave' and `substantial' suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Lee v. State

holding that the terms `grave' and `substantial' suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Lee v. State

holding that the terms `grave' and `substantial' suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Drinkard v. State

holding that the use of the three phrases together could be interpreted by a reasonable juror to allow a finding of guilt based on a degree of proof below that required by due process

Summary of this case from Gentry v. State

holding that the terms "grave" and "substantial" suggest a higher degree of doubt than that actually required to acquit

Summary of this case from Smith v. State

holding that the use of the three phrases together could be interpreted by a reasonable juror to allow a finding of guilt based on a degree of proof below that required by due process

Summary of this case from CULP v. STATE

finding the trial court erred by defining the evidentiary standard of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" as tantamount to "a grave uncertainty" and "an actual substantial doubt"

Summary of this case from Taylor v. Culliver

finding reasonable doubt instruction unconstitutional for reasons other than "mathematical certainty" language

Summary of this case from Liggins v. Burge

finding structural error where a jury instruction reduced the State's burden by equating reasonable doubt with grave uncertainty

Summary of this case from Hidalgo v. State

finding a reasonable doubt instruction to be constitutionally defective because under the instruction the jury may have reasonably believed it was allowed to render a guilty verdict based on proof below what is required under the Due Process Clause

Summary of this case from People v. Munoz

reversing conviction equating reasonable doubt with "grave uncertainty" and "actual substantial doubt"

Summary of this case from U.S. v. Nolasco

In Cage v. Louisiana, 498 U.S. 39 (1990) (per curiam), this Court held that a certain jury instruction violated the Constitution because it inaccurately defined "reasonable doubt," thereby permitting a jury to convict "based on a degree of proof below that required by the Due Process Clause."

Summary of this case from Tyler v. Cain

In Cage, this Court observed that a reasonable juror "could have" interpreted the instruction at issue to permit a finding of guilt without the requisite proof.

Summary of this case from Tyler v. Cain
Case details for

Cage v. Louisiana

Case Details

Full title:CAGE v . LOUISIANA

Court:U.S.

Date published: Nov 13, 1990

Citations

498 U.S. 39 (1990)
111 S. Ct. 328

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