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U.S. Supreme Court

Hankerson v. North Carolina, 432 U.S. 233 (1977)

Hankerson v. North Carolina

No. 75-6568

Argued February 23, 1977

Decided June 17, 1977

432 U.S. 233


Prior to the decision in Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U. S. 684, petitioner was convicted in a North Carolina court of second-degree murder over his claim that he acted in self-defense. The trial judge had instructed the jury that, if the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that petitioner intentionally killed the victim with a deadly weapon the law raised presumptions that the killing was unlawful and that it was done with malice, and that, in order to excuse his act, petitioner had to prove to the jury's "satisfaction" that he acted in self-defense. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed over petitioner's objection to such instructions, refusing to give retroactive application to Mullaney. Although holding that a burden to "satisfy" a jury of a fact is not "significantly less" than persuasion by a preponderance of the evidence, and that therefore the charge was erroneous under Mullaney, which required the State to establish all elements of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt and which invalidated presumptions that shifted the burden of proving such elements to the defendant, the court concluded that the retroactive application of Mullaney would have a devastating impact on the administration of justice.


1. The North Carolina Supreme Court erred in declining to hold the Mullaney rule retroactive. Ivan v. v. City of New York, 407 U. S. 203. While, in deciding whether a new constitutional rule is to be applied retroactively, it is proper to consider the State's reliance on the old rule and the impact of the new rule on the administration of justice if the degree to which the new rule enhances the integrity of the factfinding process is sufficiently small,

"'where the major purpose of new constitutional doctrine is to overcome an aspect of the criminal trial that substantially impairs its truthfinding function and so raises serious questions about the accuracy of guilty verdicts in past trials, the new rule [is] given complete retroactive effect.'"

Id. at 407 U. S. 204 (emphasis supplied). The Mullaney rule falls within this latter category, since it was designed to diminish the probability that an innocent person would be convicted and thus to overcome an aspect of a criminal trial that "substantially impairs its truthfinding function." Pp. 432 U. S. 240-244.

2. Nor can the North Carolina Supreme Court's judgment be affirmed on the ground that, even if Mullaney is applied retroactively, the trial chanrobles.com-red

Page 432 U. S. 234

court's instructions left the burden of disproving self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt on the prosecution, or at least did not require the accused to prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence, and thus did not violate the Mullaney rule. The North Carolina Supreme Court construed the instructions to the contrary, and since such interpretation is a matter of state law, there is no basis for disagreeing with it. Pp. 432 U. S. 244-245.

288 N.C. 632, 220 S.E.2d 575, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, STEWART, BLACKMUN, ad STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring statement, in which BURGER, C.J.,joined, post, p. 432 U. S. 245. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 432 U. S. 245, and POWELL, J., post, p. 432 U. S. 246, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. REHNQUIST, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


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