480 U. S. 228
February 25, 1987
Following a heated argument, Earline Martin killed her husband Walter with three shots from a gun. At trial, she raised a self-defense claim, which Ohio law required her to prove by the preponderance of the evidence (i.e. more likely than not). The jury found her guilty, but Martin objected on due process grounds to bearing the burden of proof on her self defense claim.
The Court ruled 5-4 that Ohio could shift the burden of proof for such an affirmative defense. White wrote for the majority. Ohio, he explained, had to prove every element of the murder charge beyond a reasonable doubt, and could shift burdens for affirmative defenses only because nothing in those defenses constituted an additional element of the crime. He also noted that affirmative defense burden shifting was permitted when both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments were ratified.
Powell dissented, and was joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun. He thought that self-defense was so central to the question of guilt that the state should carry the burden, that the deference given to states by the majority opinion was unbounded and dangerous, and that Ohio’s jury instructions would have been confusing to a typical jury. In a section not joined by Blackmun, Powell proposed that a state should be required to prove any issue beyond a reasonable doubt if that issue could make the difference between guilt and non-guilt, or punishment and non-punishment.
This is one of those strange cases where the political lines have flipped completely in less than three decades. Here, a conservative majority outvotes a liberal minority to find that defendants raising self-defense claims bear some extra burden to justify their actions. Today, the death of another Martin – Trayvon rather than Walter – demonstrates that the poles have switched. In any event, while I think White had better legal reasoning, I also think states should not make defendants bear the burden of proof for affirmative defenses.