Law School Case Brief
United States v. McRae - 593 F.2d 700 (5th Cir. 1979)
The classic reversible jury instruction is one intended to guide the jury in its deliberations on criminal intent. It contains two elements, the first innocuous and the second doubtful or, depending on its phrasing and that of the remainder of the charge, reversible. The innocuous element is advice to the jury that they may infer intent from the defendant's knowing conduct, often accompanied by some such observation as that since one cannot look into the human mind, what one intends must usually be deduced from what he does. The second, dubious element is injected when words are changed or added which shift the prosecution's burden of proof, and when the defendant's act is equally susceptible of innocent motive and guilty purpose.
Defendant McRae was a military policeman on active duty. He and his wife were on strained terms, and at numerous times during the last year of his wife’s life, Defendant admittedly made statements to various witnesses that he meant to kill her. On the day of Mrs. McRae’s death, she and Defendant had agreed that he would move into barracks for a few days in consequence of their strained relationship. When Defendant went home, he found a cold dinner. He then took down the rifle from its rack in the living room. With the gun cocked and loaded, he started toward his wife in response to her invitation to approach her. As he came on, the gun discharged, shattering Mrs. McRae’s skull and killing her instantly. Defendant was later arrested. On trial, the court gave the jury a Mann instruction, which was intended to guide the jury in its deliberations on criminal intent. Defendant was then convicted of second-degree murder. On appeal, the Defendant argued that the jury charge impermissibly shifted the burden of proof, that the jury charge did not adequately explain voluntary manslaughter, that prosecutorial remarks at closing argument prejudiced the outcome, and that certain evidence should have been excluded.
Was defendant’s conviction for second degree murder proper?
The Court discussed the history of the classic reversible jury charge and held that the instructions in the case, although flawed, did not contain the fatal combination of language that had required reversal in other cases. The Court held that the charge, which focused on "sudden passion" as an element of the offense, was correct. According to the Court, despite some doubtful language in the jury charge, it lacked the combination of elements required to shift the burden of proof to the defendant.
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