People v Berry

US Criminal Law

People v Berry
Image: ‘It’s Hard to Explain Murder’ by Dean Cornwell

First degree murder and involuntary manslaughter fall within the same category of unlawful killing, however when the defendant is subject to the misdirection of a jury, the sentence can be one in excess of the prescribed term. In this matter, a man convicted of strangling his wife challenged the trial court decision on grounds of both emotional and mental vulnerability.

In summer of 1974, the appellant married a woman more than half his age, before she travelled back to her home country of Israel. Upon her return, she declared her love for another man with whom she had enjoyed sexual intercourse with on a number of occasions. What then followed was a series of emotional inducements and sexual engagements with the appellant that preceded almost immediate emotional and physical rejections and spurning of his advances.

This pattern of behaviour lasted for a period of around ten days, after which the appellant choked his wife to the point of unconsciousness. Having reported him to the police authorities, the appellant was arrested and charged with assault likely to produce great bodily injury, as per s.245(a)(4) of the California Penal Code, which reads:

“Any person who commits an assault upon the person of another by any means of force likely to produce great bodily injury shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine…or by both the fine and imprisonment.”

Within twenty-four hours of her returning home, the two parties began arguing, whereupon the appellant again strangled his wife, instead using a telephone cord until she was dead. Having confessed, the appellant was charged with first degree murder under ss. 187 and 189 of the California Penal Code which read:

“187(a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought”

189. All murder which is perpetrated by means of…lying in wait, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing…with the intent to inflict death, is murder of the first degree.”

Upon which the appellant appealed on grounds that the jury were misdirected when failing to consider the defence submitted by his instructed psychiatrist of voluntary manslaughter under s.192 of the Penal Code, which states:

Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of three kinds: (a) Voluntary – upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion (b) Involuntary and (c) Vehicular…”

And that due to his mental instability, he was entitled to mitigation under a defence of diminished responsibility as per People v. Mosher, in which malice was eliminated by way of mental defect.

Upon presentation, the California Supreme Court examined s.192 of the California Penal Code and drew reference to People v. Logan, in which the court held that:

“[I]t is left to the jurors to say whether or not the facts and circumstances in evidence are sufficient to lead them to believe that the defendant did, or to create a reasonable doubt in their minds as to whether or not he did, commit his offense under a heat of passion…[F]or the fundamental of the inquiry is whether or not the defendant’s reason was, at the time of his act, so disturbed or obscured by some passion—not necessarily fear and never, of course, the passion for revenge—to such an extent as would render ordinary men of average disposition liable to act rashly or without due deliberation and reflection, and from this passion rather than from judgment.”

While noting that in People v. Valentine, it had been agreed that verbal provocation would be sufficient to constitute arousal of heat or passion.

With regard to the claim of diminished responsibility, it was also agreed that while diminished capacity typically required evidence of mental illness, mental defect or intoxication, it had been recently held in People v. Long, that mental illness or defect without intoxication was equally sufficient as a defence.

Unfortunately for the appellant, there had at no time, been any mention of mental deficiency within his defence, and so while it was held that the jury were incorrectly directed to determine guilt without consideration of s.192, there could be no mitigation for diminished responsibility, therefore only the first element of the appeal was reversed.

 

Bush v Commonwealth

US Criminal Law

Bush v Commonwealth
Image: ‘Kentucky Derby 2017’ by Jim Cantrell

Murder and involuntary manslaughter, while both implicated as a cause of death, stem from quite different modus operandi, and so on this occasion, the misdirection of a jury almost led to the hanging of an innocent man.

Around 1880, the appellant was indicted for murder, after an accidental gunshot injured a third party during a confrontation between two men. While pleaded that the shot was fired out of self-defence, the trial judge directed the jury to determine his guilt as below:

“If the jury believe from the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant, John Bush, in Fayette county, and before the finding of the indictment, wilfully shot Annie Vanmeter with a pistol, and that she died from the effects of the wound then inflicted upon her, whether said wound was the sole cause or was a contributory agency in producing death, when such shooting was not necessary, and not reasonably believed by the defendant to be necessary for his own protection from immediate death or great bodily harm then threatening him, the jury should find the defendant guilty: guilty of murder, if the killing were also done with malice aforethought, or guilty of manslaughter if the killing were done in sudden heat and passion, and without malice.

Upon this, the jury returned a guilty verdict, despite the fact that the victim died, not from the wound, but from the transmission of scarlet fever from the physician treating her injury, while it was further implied that any deliberate and cruel act must stem from malice, regardless of contributory factors.

Taken to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the Court took issue with almost all of the judicial approaches, and reminded that s.262 of the Criminal Code expressly states that:

“Upon an indictment for an offense consisting of different degrees, the defendant may be found guilty of any degree not higher than that charged in the indictment, and may be found guilty of any offense included in that charge in the indictment.”

This translated that reliance upon the direction of the judge without any explanation as to how the victim died, would by default, lead to a wrongful execution, whereas observation of the events preceding her demise showed clearly that a non-fatal injury would have been equally chargeable as wilful and malicious shooting, stabbing or poisoning under s.2 art.6 ch.29 of the General Statutes of Kentucky 1873, or shooting and wounding in sudden affray, or in sudden heat without previous malice as per s.1 art.17 ch.29 of the same Act.

Thus it was for these quite distinct polarities of reasoning, that the Court reversed the judgment with instruction to retrial upon the very principles applied.

Key Citations

“Under an indictment for murder or manslaughter, when there is evidence from which the jury might find the existence of facts constituting involuntary manslaughter, it becomes the duty of the court to instruct the jury as to the law of this offense.”

“[T]he existence of malice must be left to the determination of the jury as any other fact, and that it is error, under any circumstances, to tell the jury that the law implies malice from any fact or facts.”

Hutto v Davis

US Criminal Law

Hutto v Davis
Image: ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Barbara St. Jean

Disproportionate sentencing for non-violent offences, while not surprising in a multi-jurisdictional continent, becomes central to the hierarchical fragility of a country built upon fairness and constitutional rights, when a convicted felon receives life imprisonment for drug related offences valued at less than $200 at the time of arrest.

In 1973, Virginia state police raided and recovered nine ounces of marijuana from the home of the defendant, prior to his conviction for possession with intent to distribute. When awarding judgment, the court passed a sentence of forty years imprisonment with a fine of $10,000, after which the defendant successfully appealed under habeas corpus, while contending that such an exorbitant term was in contravention to art.VIII of the Constitution which reads:

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

And s.1 of art.XIV which reads:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Unfortunately, a US Court of Appeals panel reversed the decision on grounds that at no point in history had the Court been found liable for cruel and unusual punishment when sentencing under the guidance of state legislation, however when reheard in full judicial capacity, the Court amended its earlier judgment back in favour of the appellant.

Through the application of Rummel v Estelle, in which a Texan defendant had been unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment for fraudulent misrepresentation to the value of just under $121, the US Supreme Court ruled that despite the extremity of the sentences, there was nothing unconstitutional about the application of maximum penalty through approved legislative framework, and that on this occasion, when the lower courts had relied upon the four principles used in Hart v Coiner:

  1. No element of violence and minimal, debatable danger to the person
  2. Examination of the purposes behind criminal statute and alternative mitigating remedies
  3. Evidence of excessive penalty beyond maximum recommendations
  4. Evidence of disproportionate sentencing through comparative state analysis

To allow the appeal, they had collectively failed to recognise that federal courts should be slow to review legislative sentencing mandates, and that tradition clearly showed how such instances were both rare and intrusive to the doctrine that amendments to statute were privy to Congress and not the courts. It was thus for these reasons that the US Supreme Court reversed the findings of the Court of Appeals, with explicit instruction to dismiss the habeas corpus, despite a majority dissent from within.

Key Citations

“[U]nless we wish anarchy to prevail within the federal judicial system, a precedent of this Court must be followed by the lower federal courts no matter how misguided the judges of those courts may think it to be.”