Yates v. Aiken

484 U. S. 211

January 12, 1988

Once again we have a cold-blooded murderer trying to get out of his death sentence on specious grounds. He argued that a jury instruction might have caused the jury to think that proof beyond a reasonable doubt was not required for one element of the crime. Such jury instructions had been denounced by the Supreme Court directly in 1985, and more obliquely in 1979. The question was how to consider the jury instruction issue on collateral review when the murderer’s conviction occurred in 1982.

Unanimously, the Court held that the conviction must be overturned. Justice Stevens sidestepped any retroactivity analysis by simply saying that the rule against the challenged jury instruction had been firmly established in 1979, despite the fact that it wasn’t more explicitly spelled out until 1985. I absolutely hate decisions like this; they essentially force lower courts to play an unwinnable guessing game about what the eternally coy and vague Supreme Court really decided. Here’s the first unanimous case of the year where I badly wanted to see a dissent.

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