Law School Case Brief
Mullaney v. Wilbur - 421 U.S. 684, 95 S. Ct. 1881 (1975)
The Due Process Clause requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the absence of the heat of passion on sudden provocation when the issue is properly presented in a homicide case.
After a jury trial in Maine state court, defendant Stillman E. Wilbur, Jr., was found guilty of murder. The case against him rested on his own pretrial statement and on circumstantial evidence showing that he fatally assaulted Claude Hebert in the latter's hotel room. Wilbur's statement, introduced by the prosecution, claimed that he had attacked Hebert in a frenzy provoked by Hebert's homosexual advance. The defense offered no evidence, but argued that the homicide was not unlawful since respondent lacked criminal intent. Alternatively, Wilbur's counsel asserted that at most the homicide was manslaughter rather than murder, since it occurred in the heat of passion provoked by the homosexual assault. The trial court had instructed the jury that Wilbur was required to prove by a fair preponderance of the evidence that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation in order to reduce the homicide from murder to manslaughter. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine affirmed the conviction, holding that under state law, murder and manslaughter were not distinct crimes but rather were different degrees of the single offense of felonious homicide, and thus that there was no denial of due process in requiring Wilbur to prove the facts necessary to reduce murder to manslaughter. Wilbur then successfully petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, which ruled that under Maine statutes, murder and manslaughter were distinct offenses, not different degrees of a single offense. It further held that under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the state was required to prove the elements of murder beyond a reasonable doubt and could not require Wilbur to prove that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed, subscribing in general to the district court's analysis and construction of Maine law. Shortly thereafter, in an unrelated case, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed its earlier opinion that murder and manslaughter were punishment categories of the single offense of felonious homicide. Thus, if the prosecution proved a felonious homicide the burden shifted to the defendant to prove that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation in order to receive the lesser penalty prescribed for manslaughter. In view of that decision, the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari in Wilbur's case and remanded to the court of appeals for reconsideration. On remand, that court held that to establish murder, the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilbur did not act in the heat of passion on sudden provocation. The Court again granted certiorari.
Was the state court's construction of the Maine homicide law, i.e., requiring Wilbur to carry the burden of proving that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation, violative of Wilbur's right to due process?
The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the appellate court's judgment. The Court held that requiring a defendant, such as Wilbur, to prove that he acted in the heat of passion on sudden provocation violated the requirement, under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, that the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged. The Court noted that malice aforethought was an essential and indispensable element of the crime of murder, without which the homicide would be manslaughter. According to the Court, in order to satisfy due process, the prosecution was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the absence of the heat of passion on sudden provocation when the issue was properly presented in a homicide case.
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