People v. Bray (1975)

US Criminal Law

People v. Bray
‘Still Life with a Gun’ by Alexi Antonov

Knowledge of a criminal act is unquestionably key to any successful conviction, as was shown here in a case between a previously convicted citizen and an irascible district attorney, whose sole prerogative appeared to stem not from lawful application but sheer bloody-mindedness.

Having been arrested in conjunction with an earlier offence in Kansas 1969, the appellant was later sentenced to probation on grounds that his participation was deemed no greater than a misdemeanour, while a lack of criminal activity prior to his conviction noted a man of reasonable character, and so after relocating to California several years later, he was successful in (i) registering to vote, (ii) gaining employment requiring the use of a handgun, and (iii) the purchase and subsequent registration of such a weapon while disclosing his past without reservation.

A little over three years after establishing his new residency the respondent ordered an investigation of the appellant’s property, during which he cooperated and openly showed the investigators his .22 and .38 pistols, however he was still arrested and charged with felonious possession of a concealable firearm under § 12021 of the California Penal Code.

Following his conviction in the Superior Court of San Diego County, the appellant challenged the judgment in the California Fourth District Court of Appeals on grounds that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury that ignorance and mistake of fact were viable defences as per § 4.35 of the California Jury Instructions-Criminal (CALJIC), which read that:

“An act committed or an omission made under an ignorance or mistake of fact which disproves any criminal intent is not a crime. Thus a person is not guilty of a crime if he commits an act or omits to act under an honest and reasonable belief in the existence of certain facts and circumstances which, if true, would make such an act unlawful.”

Whereupon the court referred to People v. Hernandez, in which the California Supreme Court had held that:

“[T]he courts have uniformly failed to satisfactorily explain the nature of the criminal intent present in the mind of one who in good faith believes he has obtained a lawful consent before engaging in the prohibited act.”

Before noting how in People v. Vogel the same court had also held that:

[T]he intent with which the unlawful act was done must be proved as well as the other material facts stated in the indictment; which may be by evidence either direct or indirect, tending to establish the fact, or by inference of law from other facts proved.”

And so in light of the obvious judicial oversight, the court sustained the motion that when adjudged as no more than a past minor offender, the appellant had therefore lawfully obtained and exercised his rights when possessing the very items relied upon to convict him, whereupon the previous judgment was reversed in full, while the court reminded the respondents that:

“[K]nowledge that one is a felon becomes relevant where there is a doubt the defendant knew he had committed a felony.”

Adams v. People (1884)

US Criminal Law

Adams v. People
Image: ‘Railway Carriages’ by Vincent Van Gogh

Conspiracy to rob and the causation of death, while both separate in their context, are brought together to when a jury determines a sustainable conviction, despite the absence of witnesses and minimal evidence with which to rely upon.

In 1883, four men were found guilty of wanton killing after colluding in their pursuit of depriving strangers of their personal belongings on a train carriage in Madison county, Indiana. This criminal activity ultimately resulted in the death of a single victim, which while itself was exempt from first-hand witness testimony, nonetheless left the jury satisfied enough to pass a verdict for murder.

In response, two of the defendants sought a continuance of proceedings for the unheard testimony of two key witnesses who had failed to show on the day of the trial. Having been presented to the Supreme Court of Illinois, the judge recounted the events preceding the victim’s death, while noting the defendants contention with previous jury instructions.

While the defendants had robbed two individuals at gunpoint, the first of them had been forced to jump from the moving rail carriage, after which he came across the body of the second victim further along the rail lines. His death had been caused through the crushing of his skull, but there was nothing to otherwise indicate exactly how he had died, except by an assumption that once robbed, he too had been forced to jump from the carriage, or had been murdered and thrown, neither of which could be proven first-hand.

When instructing the jury, the trial judge had remarked that:

“[I]f defendants did, by threats of violence to the person, intimidation, or by displaying deadly weapons in a threatening manner, cause the said Patrick Knight to leap or jump from the car while in motion….and thereby he was killed, as charged in the indictment, and if the jury so believe, from the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that such are the facts, they should find the defendants guilty.”

Further adding:

“[T]hat if the defendants conspired to rob Patrick Knight, and with the intent to conceal said crime of robbery did force him to jump….they should find the defendants guilty.”

Here, the defendants argued that there was a lack of evidence upon which to determine that the men charged were guilty of the crime both alleged and now convicted, and thus pleaded for a continuance, so as to enable the depositions of the witnesses unrepresented.

With reference to the charge, the court explained that under Illinois statute the definition of murder was:

“The unlawful killing of a human being, in the peace of the people, with malice aforethought, either express or implied. Malice shall be implied where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

And that:

“Provided, always, that where such involuntary killing shall happen in the commission of an unlawful act, which, in its consequences, naturally tends to destroy the life of a human being, or is committed in the prosecution of a felonious intent, the offence shall be deemed and adjudged to be murder.”

While in regard to the victims expulsion from the carriage, s.142 of ‘Greenleaf on Evidence’ stressed that:

“Forcing a person to do an act which causes his death, renders the death the guilty deed of him who compelled the deceased to do the act.”

While s.147 added that:

“Malice may be proved by evidence of gross recklessness of human life, where, in any manner, the life of another is knowingly, cruelly and grossly endangered, whether by actual violence, or by inhuman privation or exposure, and death is caused thereby.”

Thus the court held that regardless of the doubts cast by the defendants, where a jury is satisfied beyond any reasonable doubt as the warrant of a conviction, it is beyond the power of the court to interfere with that decision, despite the indignations of the accused, upon which the original judgment was upheld.