OCTOBER TERM, 1991
ESTELLE, WARDEN v. McGUIRE
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 90-1074. Argued October 9, 1991-Decided December 4, 1991
Respondent McGuire was found guilty in a California state court of the second-degree murder of his infant daughter, Tori. Among the prosecution's witnesses were two physicians, who testified that Tori was a battered child who had suffered prior injuries. The battered child testimony revealed evidence of rectal tearing, which was at least six weeks old, and evidence of partially healed rib fractures, which were approximately seven weeks old. The trial court instructed the jury that the prior injury evidence could be considered for "the limited purpose of determining if it tends to show ... a clear connection between the other two offense[s] and the one of which [McGuire] is accused, so that it may be logically concluded that if the Defendant committed other offenses, he also committed the crime charged in this case." The State Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, finding that the introduction of prior injury evidence was proper under state law to prove "battered child syndrome," which exists when a child has sustained repeated and/or serious injuries by nonaccidental means. Subsequently, the Federal District Court denied McGuire's petition for habeas corpus. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the trial was arbitrary and fundamentally unfair in violation of due process. It ruled that the prior injury evidence was erroneously admitted to establish battered child syndrome, because there was no evidence linking McGuire to the prior injuries and no claim made at trial that Tori died accidently, and that the jury instruction on the use of prior act evidence allowed a finding of guilt based simply on a judgment that he committed the prior acts.
Held: Neither the admission of the challenged evidence nor the jury instruction as to its use rises to the level of a due process violation. Pp.67-75.
(a) The prior injury evidence, although not linked to McGuire himself, was probative on the question of the intent with which the person who caused Tori's injuries acted, since it demonstrated that her death was the result of an intentional act by someone, and not an accident. The fact that no claim that Tori died accidentally was made at trial did not relieve the prosecution of its burden to prove all of the essential elements of second-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. By eliminating the possibility of accident, the evidence was clearly probative of
such an element: that the killing was intentional. It was also improper for the Court of Appeals to base its holding on its conclusion that the evidence was incorrectly admitted under state law, since it is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions. Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U. S. 764, 780. pp.67-70.
(b) The Court of Appeals erred in concluding that the instruction allowed the jury to consider the prior injury evidence for more than simply proof of battered child syndrome. The instruction's language forecloses McGuire's claim that the jury was directed to find that he had committed the prior acts. The trial court's inclusion of the words "if the Defendant committed other offenses" unquestionably left it to the jury to determine whether he committed the prior acts and to use the evidence in deciding his guilt only if it believed that he had committed those acts. To the extent that the jury may have believed that he inflicted the prior injuries, there was sufficient evidence in the record to support that conclusion. Also rejected is McGuire's argument that, even if the determination of the perpetrator was left to the jury, the instruction was a propensity instruction, allowing the jury to base its determination of guilt in part upon the conclusion that McGuire had committed the prior acts and therefore had a disposition to commit this type of crime. While the instruction was ambiguous, there is no "reasonable likelihood" that the jury would have concluded that it, read in the context of other instructions, authorized the use of propensity evidence. Boyde v. California, 494 U. S. 370, 380. It seems far more likely that the jury understood the instruction to mean that if it found a "clear connection" between the prior and instant injuries, and if it found that McGuire had committed the prior injuries, then it could use that fact in determining that he committed the crime charged. This parallels the use of prior act evidence for the purpose of showing intent, identity, motive, or plan, see, e. g., Fed. Rule Evid. 404(b). More importantly, the court specifically guarded against possible misuse by advising the jury that the prior injury evidence, if believed, could not be considered to prove that McGuire was "a person of bad character or that he ha[d] a disposition to commit crimes." Neither the belief that the instruction violated state law nor a belief that the trial judge incorrectly interpreted the state evidence code is a ground for federal habeas relief. Pp. 70-75.
902 F.2d 749, reversed.
REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, and in Part I of