In order to satisfy the constitutional requirements of due process, a criminal conviction must be supported by proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged. It is the essence of a fair trial and of the right to jury trial that the jury apply the reasonable doubt standard to determine those issues of fact that bear on the elements of the offense, and presumably it is in accordance with this mandate that New York requires the trial judge to state to the jury the material legal principles applicable to the particular case, and, so far as practicable, explain the application of the law to the facts.
In New York state court, a jury convicted appellant of murder, robbery, and grand larceny. Appellant petitioned for habeas corpus relief against appellee prison from the district court, which denied his petition and noted that the correctness of the jury instructions did not raise a cognizable constitutional claim as to causation of death in the murder charge.
Is the trial court’s disregard of appellant’s requested instructions on causation of death in a murder trial reversible error?
The court, however, found that the trial judge's instructions permitted the jury, in its fact-finding process, to disregard appellant's colorable claim that, as to the murder charge, his actions had not caused decedent's death. The instructions thus violated appellant's constitutional right to have every element of the charged crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial judge's incomplete instructions took a necessary determination of causation from the jury and thereby deprived appellant of his right to due process. Because the error in the jury instructions reached constitutional dimensions, the court granted the writ as to any detention arising from appellant's murder conviction.