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Dunn v. Perrin

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit
Feb 2, 1978
570 F.2d 21 (1st Cir. 1978)

Summary

In Dunn v. Perrin, 570 F.2d 21 (1st Cir. 1978), the First Circuit made more explicit the notion that cumulative errors may render a reasonable doubt instruction constitutionally deficient.

Summary of this case from Gaines v. Kelly

Opinion

Nos. 77-1408 and 77-1412.

Argued December 7, 1977.

Decided February 2, 1978.

Gilbert Upton, Concord, N. H., for petitioner, appellant, Richard Dunn.

Carroll F. Jones, Concord, N. H., with whom McSwiney, Jones Semple, Concord, N. H., was on brief, for petitioner, appellant, Laurence Black.

James L. Kruse, Asst. Atty. Gen., Concord, N. H., with whom David H. Souter, Atty. Gen. and Edward A. Haffer, Asst. Atty. Gen., Concord, N. H., were on brief for respondent, appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire.

Before COFFIN, Chief Judge, ALDRICH and CAMPBELL, Circuit Judges.


Petitioners, convicted of separate crimes in two state trials, sought habeas corpus and appeal the district court's denials of the writ. While different juries heard petitioners' trials, the instructions on reasonable doubt were virtually identical. We reproduce in the margin the instructions as given in Dunn's case. The New Hampshire Supreme Court concluded, in both cases, that the charge as a whole conveyed the correct concept of reasonable doubt. State v. Black, 116 N.H. 836, 837, 368 A.2d 1177 (1976); State v. Belkner, et al., N.H., 374 A.2d 938 (1977). The district court also found no constitutional error when it read the charge as a whole.

"The term reasonable doubt, as I use it, means just what those words ordinarily imply. It is a doubt which is reasonable and excludes a doubt which is unreasonable. It is such a doubt as for the existence of which a reasonable person can give or suggest a good and sufficient reason. It does not mean a trivial or a frivolous or a fanciful doubt nor one which can be readily or easily explained away, but rather such a strong and abiding conviction as still remains after careful consideration of all the facts and arguments against it and would cause a fair-minded person to refrain from acting in regard to some transaction of importance and seriousness equal to this case. It is not the object of that rule of proof to impose upon the State an impossible burden, nor is it intended to make you examine and judge the evidence in any strange, peculiar, unreasonable, or extraordinary manner. It is a matter of common knowledge to us all that absolute positive certainty in regard to many of the affairs of life can almost never be attained; and even in our most important matters, we frequently act upon information which we do not positively know to be absolutely true and which we have no means of verifying, but as to the truth of which we are morally certain. In such instances, there is no reasonable doubt. But where our belief in a fact is so uncertain that we would hesitate to undertake something of importance and seriousness equal to these cases upon the strength of it, then there is a reasonable doubt."

We are compelled to disagree. We are fully aware that the charge in each case, apart from its definition of reasonable doubt, is replete with reminders that every element of the crime charged must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But the passage defining that critical concept contained to fewer than three different misstatements, ranging from the dubious to the patently erroneous. With this linchpin so weakened, we cannot label the errors harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Reasonable doubt is at best a difficult concept to explain to a lay jury. It is also a concept informed by an abundance of precedent. It is not surprising that appellate courts have repeatedly cautioned that attempts to explain reasonable doubt seldom clarify the concept and may first with an impermissible reduction of the prosecution's burden of proof. See Miles v. United States, 103 U.S. 304, 312, 26 L.Ed. 481 (1880); United States v. MacDonald, 455 F.2d 1259, 1263 (1st. Cir. 1972). Nevertheless, the court in these two cases obviously felt that a variety of approaches might clarify the concept.

The first formulation was to explain reasonable doubt as "doubt as for the existence of which a reasonable person can give or suggest a good and sufficient reason." Similar qualifications have received judicial criticism. See id. at 1263 (jury must find an "intelligent reason"); United States v. Christy, 444 F.2d 448, 450 (6th Cir. 1971) (proof must leave the jury with no "reasonable, substantial doubt"). While standing alone, this portion of the charge might not be reversible error, United States v. MacDonald, supra, we think it was improper. It suggested that a doubt based on reason was not enough to acquit, implicitly putting petitioners to the task of proving that the reason was "good and sufficient". See Cool v. United States, 409 U.S. 100, 104, 93 S.Ct. 354, 34 L.Ed.2d 335 (1972) (per curiam).

Definition of reasonable doubt as doubt which is reasonable has been upheld by numerous courts. See United States v. MacDonald, 455 F.2d 1259, 1262-63 n. 4 (1st. Cir. 1972).

What immediately followed this questionable definition of reasonable doubt was clearly wrong. The court spoke in these words:

"It [reasonable doubt] doles not mean a trivial or a frivolous or a fanciful doubt nor one which can be readily or easily explained away, but rather such a strong and abiding conviction as still remains after careful consideration of all the facts and arguments. . . ."

In United States v. Flannery, 451 F.2d 880, 883 (1st. Cir. 1971), we condemned virtually that exact wording. Although the existence of other reversible error in Flannery made it unnecessary for us to resolve the constitutional implications of such a charge, we do so now. That definition of reasonable doubt was the exact inverse of what it should have been. See United States v. Magnano, 543 F.2d 431, 436 (2d Cir. 1976); Bernstein v. United States, 234 F.2d 475, 486 n. 8 (5th Cir. 1956). Instead of requiring the government to prove guilt, it called upon petitioners to establish doubt in the jurors' minds. That is an inescapable violation of In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1969).

The state argues that, taken in context, the phrase "strong and abiding conviction" refers not to doubt, but to guilt. While we can see how such an interpretation can be offered, we cannot expect a jury to brush aside grammar and intuit a more sensible meaning, at least not when so crucial a concept as reasonable doubt is our focus.

The court, continuing in its efforts to clarify, added:

"It is a matter of common knowledge to us all that absolute positive certainty in regard to many of the affairs of life can almost never be attained, and even in our most important matters, we frequently act upon information which we do not positively know to be absolutely true and which we have no means of verifying, but as to the truth of which we are morally certain. In such instances, there is no reasonable doubt."

Authorities differ on the advisability of equating proof beyond a reasonable doubt with establishment of guilt to a moral certainty. See United States v. Magnano, supra, 543 F.2d at 437; United States v. Byrd, 352 F.2d 570, 575 (2d Cir. 1956). We need not take sides in that controversy, however, for proof to either degree based on admissible evidence and proper inferences is far different from what was authorized here. This charge permitted the jury to convict or acquit on the basis of information incapable of verification. Yet the essence of the reasonable doubt standard is that guilt be established not on speculation or intuition, but on evidence and the inferences permitted by law. See Miles v. United States, supra, 103 U.S. at 309, 26 L.Ed. 481; United States v. Guglielmini, 384 F.2d 602, 607 (2d Cir. 1967).

The inclusion of other incorrect explanations of reasonable doubt in this charge obviates the need to decide whether this portion would, by itself, warrant reversal.

Finally, petitioners challenge that portion of the charge which defined reasonable doubt as that which would cause the jurors "to refrain from acting in regard to some transaction of importance and seriousness . . . ." That phrase has two elements: reference to refraining from action (as opposed to something like "to be willing to act") and comparison of the decision on guilt or innocence with an important transaction in ordinary life. Addressing the second first, we note that comparison of reasonable doubt in criminal cases with the standard employed by jurors to make even the most significant decisions in their daily lives has been criticized for its tendency to trivialize the constitutionally required burden of proof. See Scurry v. United States, 120 U.S.App.D.C. 374, 376, 347 F.2d 468, 470 (1965); Commonwealth v. Ferreira, Mass., 364 N.E.2d 1264 (1977). By contrast the "refrain from acting" portion of the charge given here has received widespread approval among the circuits. See Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 140, 75 S.Ct. 127, 99 L.Ed. 150 (1954); United States v. Robinson, 546 F.2d 309, 313 (9th Cir. 1976); United States v. Leaphart, 513 F.2d 747, 750 (10th Cir. 1975); United States v. Dixon, 507 F.2d 683, 684 (8th Cir. 1974); United States v. Richardson, 504 F.2d 357, 361 (5th Cir. 1974); United States v. Restaino, 369 F.2d 544, 546 (3d Cir. 1966). We find no constitutional infirmity in the combined effect of these two components.

Judge Wright observed in Scury v. United States, 120 U.S.App.D.C. 374, 376, 347 F.2d 468, 470 (1965):

"A prudent person called upon to act in an important business or family matter would certainly gravely weight the often neatly balanced considerations and risks tending in both directions. But, in making and acting on a judgment after so doing, such a person would not necessarily be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the had made the right judgment. Human experience, unfortunately, is to the contrary."

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts agrees:
"The degree of certainty required to convict is unique to the criminal law. We do not think that people customarily make private decisions according to this standard nor may it even be possible to do so. Indeed, we suspect that were this standard mandatory in private affairs the result would be massive inertia. Individuals may often have the luxury of undoing private mistakes; a verdict of guilty is frequently irrevocable." Commonwealth v. Ferreira, Mass., 364 N.E.2d 1264, 1274 (1977).

The phrases "hesitate to act" and "refrain from acting" are used interchangeably in the case law.

What remains to be resolved is whether those portions of the charge we have found to be erroneous warrant relief by habeas corpus. After In re Winship, supra, 397 U.S. at 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, it is obvious the errors are of constitutional magnitude. As the Supreme Court noted, the right to proof beyond a reasonable doubt is indispensable for a criminal defendant. Id. at 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068. Discussion of the concept is perhaps the most important aspect of the closing instruction to the jury in a criminal trial. Commonwealth v. Ferreira, supra, Mass., 364 N.E.2d 264 (1977).

Although in these habeas appeals we are called upon to review state court convictions, the fact that a constitutional right is implicated permits reference to federal precedents for the determination both of whether a violation occurred and whether it was harmless. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 21, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1966).

Here reasonable doubt was improperly defined three times. This is thus not a technical error appearing in "artificial isolation", Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 147, 94 S.Ct. 396, 38 L.Ed.2d 368 (1973), or one that was cured by an otherwise proper charge. See United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658, 674, 95 S.Ct. 1903, 44 L.Ed.2d 489 (1974). The cumulative effect of the three errors was to obfuscate one of the "essentials of due process and fair treatment". In re Winship, supra, 397 U.S. at 359, 90 S.Ct. at 1070. Although the evidence against both petitioners was substantial, it could not be said to have been overwhelming, See Harrington v. California, 395 U.S. 250, 89 S.Ct. 1726, 23 L.Ed.2d 284 (1968). Thus a distinct possibility existed that the jury was misled by the charge. See Andres v. United States, 333 U.S. 740, 752, 68 S.Ct. 880, 92 L.Ed. 1055 (1947).

In Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 20, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1966), the Supreme Court indicated that some constitutional errors may be so substantial that they can never be harmless. We leave to another day the question of whether this was such an error. Under the circumstances presented here, a finding of harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt is not permitted us.

The judgment of the district court is reversed. The writ of habeas corpus shall issue unless, within 90 days from the date of this opinion, the state has either reinstituted proceedings to retry the petitioners or applied for a writ of certiorari. If certiorari is sought and granted, issuance of the writ of habeas corpus shall be stayed pending further order of the Supreme Court. If certiorari is sought and denied, the writ of habeas corpus shall issue unless the state has initiated retrial of the petitioners within 30 days after the date certiorari is denied. Petitioner Black shall remain on bail until such time as retrial is commenced, unless the Supreme Court otherwise orders.

So ordered.


Summaries of

Dunn v. Perrin

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit
Feb 2, 1978
570 F.2d 21 (1st Cir. 1978)

In Dunn v. Perrin, 570 F.2d 21 (1st Cir. 1978), the First Circuit made more explicit the notion that cumulative errors may render a reasonable doubt instruction constitutionally deficient.

Summary of this case from Gaines v. Kelly

In Dunn, this court held that a series of questionable formulations defining reasonable doubt, while perhaps not error standing alone, were error in combination.

Summary of this case from Simpson v. Matesanz

In Dunn v. Perrin, 570 F.2d 21, 23 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 437 U.S. 910, 98 S.Ct. 3102, 57 L. Ed. 2d 1141 (1978), the First Circuit criticized an instruction that cast reasonable doubt as "doubt as for the existence of which a reasonable person can give or suggest a good and sufficient reason.

Summary of this case from Humphrey v. Cain

leaving to "another day" decision whether constitutionally defective charge on reasonable doubt can ever be harmless

Summary of this case from Lanigan v. Maloney

In Dunn v. Perrin, 570 F.2d 21 (1st Cir. 1978), we invalidated a New Hampshire reasonable doubt jury instruction substantially identical to the one given at Breest's trial.

Summary of this case from Breest v. Cunningham

In Dunn the trial court defined reasonable doubt as "a strong and abiding conviction as still remains after careful consideration of all the facts."

Summary of this case from United States v. Hart

leaving to "another day" decision whether constitutionally defective charge on reasonable doubt can ever be harmless

Summary of this case from Bumpus v. Gunter

In Dunn v. Perrin, 570 F.2d 21, 24 (1st Cir. 1978), we noted that "comparison of reasonable doubt in criminal cases with the standard employed by jurors to make even the most significant decisions in their daily lives has been criticized for its tendency to trivialize the constitutionally required burden of proof".

Summary of this case from Grace v. Butterworth

In Dunn v. Perrin, 570 F.2d 21 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 437 U.S. 910, 98 S.Ct. 3102, 57 L.Ed.2d 1141 (1978), we said that the definition of reasonable doubt as doubt which is reasonable has been upheld by numerous courts, id., 23 n. 2, and we can here see nothing objectionable in telling a jury that a reasonable doubt is one which is reasonable rather than unreasonable.

Summary of this case from Tsoumas v. State of N. H

In Dunn, the court found that where jurors are advised that the appropriate level of certainty is one that would cause the jurors to refrain from acting in the significant affairs of their lives, the instruction was not infirm.

Summary of this case from Gilday v. Callahan

In Dunn v. Perrin, 570 F.2d at 24, the First Circuit "note[d] that comparison of reasonable doubt in criminal cases with the standard employed by jurors to make even the most significant decisions in their daily lives has been criticized for its tendency to trivialize the constitutionally required burden of proof."

Summary of this case from Smith v. Butler

In Dunn the First Circuit concluded that the cumulative effect of three errors that are contained in each of these charges was "to obfuscate one of the `essential elements of due process and fair treatment'": proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Summary of this case from Breest v. Perrin

In Dunn, language substantially similar to the "slight or frivolous" formulation was placed, unlike in the charge here considered, in immediate juxtaposition with the "strong and abiding conviction" definition; yet, the Dunn court was no less critical of that charge than it had been in Flannery, supra, where the latter phrase had appeared by itself.

Summary of this case from Tsoumas v. State of New Hampshire

In Dunn v. Perrin, 570 F.2d 21 (1st Cir. 1978), cert. denied, 98 S. Ct. 3102 (1978), the defendants from the two New Hampshire cases sought relief by petitions for habeas corpus in the federal district court, but the district court agreed with this court and denied the requested relief.

Summary of this case from State v. Wentworth
Case details for

Dunn v. Perrin

Case Details

Full title:RICHARD DUNN, PETITIONER, APPELLANT, v. EVERETT I. PERRIN, JR.…

Court:United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

Date published: Feb 2, 1978

Citations

570 F.2d 21 (1st Cir. 1978)

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