Patterson v. New York

432 U.S. 197 (1977)

Quick Summary

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Gordon Patterson, Jr. (defendant) killed John Northrup after becoming estranged from his wife, Roberta. Charged with second-degree murder, Patterson claimed he acted under extreme emotional disturbance.

The dispute centered on whether New York’s requirement for Patterson to prove his affirmative defense violated his constitutional rights. The Supreme Court concluded that it did not, affirming his conviction based on traditional legal standards regarding burdens of proof.

Facts of the Case

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Gordon Patterson, Jr. (defendant) experienced a tumultuous marriage with his wife, Roberta, which eventually led to their separation. During this period, Roberta rekindled a relationship with an old flame, John Northrup. Overcome by emotion, Patterson borrowed a rifle and fatally shot Northrup.

Charged with second-degree murder, Patterson confessed to the killing but claimed he acted under extreme emotional disturbance, a recognized affirmative defense in New York that could mitigate his crime to manslaughter. The jury was instructed that proving this defense by a preponderance of the evidence was Patterson’s responsibility.

Despite his efforts, the jury convicted him of second-degree murder. The New York Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, leading Patterson to challenge the constitutionality of placing the burden of proof for affirmative defenses on defendants. He contended that this responsibility should fall on the state.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Patterson was charged with second-degree murder and raised an affirmative defense at trial.
  2. The jury found Patterson guilty of second-degree murder, rejecting the defense of extreme emotional disturbance.
  3. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.
  4. Patterson appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States on constitutional grounds.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether New York’s law requiring a defendant to prove the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rule of Law

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States have considerable freedom to design their criminal justice systems, including determining the burden of proof for affirmative defenses. Due process is satisfied as long as the state proves every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The Supreme Court held that New York’s allocation of the burden of proof to the defendant for the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance did not violate due process. The Court reasoned that historically, defendants bore the burden of proving affirmative defenses such as insanity or provocation.

The Court distinguished between the elements of the crime, which must be proved by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt, and additional mitigating factors or defenses, which can constitutionally be placed on the defendant to prove by a preponderance of the evidence.

The Court affirmed that New York’s statute simply required Patterson to prove circumstances that would mitigate his culpability from murder to manslaughter. Since Patterson failed to convince the jury of his affirmative defense and the state had proven the elements of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, his conviction stood.


Conclusion Icon

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals, upholding Patterson’s conviction for second-degree murder.

Key Takeaways

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  1. The Supreme Court ruled that states have discretion in allocating the burden of proof for affirmative defenses without violating due process.
  2. A defendant’s responsibility to prove an affirmative defense does not infringe upon the constitutional requirement for the state to prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
  3. The decision underscores a distinction between proving elements of a crime and establishing mitigating factors or defenses.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What is the rationale behind allowing states to require defendants to prove affirmative defenses?

States have the authority to structure their criminal justice system and ensure the defendant’s role serves the interests of justice. Affirmative defenses, such as self-defense or insanity, introduce new facts that change the legal context of the alleged crime, and legislatures may decide that it’s equitable for defendants to bear this burden since it’s uniquely within their knowledge.

  • For example: If a person charged with assault claims they acted in self-defense, it is their responsibility to provide evidence such as eyewitness testimony or physical injuries that support this contention.

How does shifting the burden of proof for an affirmative defense to the defendant affect legal strategy in a trial?

When defendants are tasked with proving an affirmative defense, their legal strategy must include accumulating sufficient evidence to meet this burden, such as witness testimony, expert opinions, or physical proof. Moreover, defense attorneys must anticipate and counter the prosecution’s arguments that may undermine these defenses.

  • For example: In a trial where provocation is claimed as a defense for assault, a defendant’s attorney might present texts or communications as evidence of such provocation, while preparing to discredit contrary evidence from the prosecution.

Why might placing the burden of proof on defendants be seen as consistent with due process?

Due process mandates that the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt all elements constituting a crime. Affirmative defenses typically don’t negate an element of the crime but introduce extenuating circumstances that could justify or excuse it. This distinction allows jurisdictions to place the burden on defendants for just their defense without infringing on due process protections.

  • For example: Consider a theft case where duress is claimed—the prosecution must still prove theft occurred, but the defendant must demonstrate they were compelled by threat of harm, thereby not affecting due process adherence.


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