Monday, April 13, 2015

Disparate Threads

State v. Congress, 2014 VT 129

By Ember Tilton

In this sad tale of murder and mental instability, SCOV was asked to tie together two stray threads of our jurisprudence and clarify whether diminished capacity can relieve a defendant of culpability for murder in such a manner as to permit her to be convicted voluntary manslaughter by a jury. The problem lies with the choice of words from prior cases. Ah, yes . . . definitions. See, voluntary manslaughter has been traditionally defined as an intentional killing that is excused because of provocation or heat of the moment irrational thinkinga.k.a. the "heat of passion" defense. However, diminished capacity has been widely used to reduce murder to manslaughter in Vermont as well.

Picture how you feel when Netflix won't load. Yeah, so if that was happening and a Netflix exec walked up to your door and you kicked him, you might be somewhat excused because there was a factor which caused you to act in a manner which you were not expecting. Also, if the judge had ever been unable to watch a favorite show, she might well identify with your mental unrest and feel some mitigation instruction was warranted.

However, this is not the problem. The problem is, in a word, "Why?" Why do we excuse the woman who comes home to a cheating husbandcatching him in the actand shoots him and his paramour? Is it because her actions were not "willful"? Is it a matter of involuntariness or lack of prior malice? Is it malice or intent or do "malice" and "intent" mean the same thing in this context? Is the reason we permit situations that might cause a reasonable person to lose it to negate some degree of guilt, the same reason that might allow a disturbed person to receive a lesser punishment too? SCOV says, "No, these are not the same thing."

Older (like back in the 1990s) SCOV cases seem to point in both direction. Actually, some point most definitely in both directions. One reading would suggest that voluntary manslaughter is intentional killing without malice. Yet, others indicate that it is the absence of intent or willfulness which reduces murder to manslaughter. In the past, many cases explicitly stated this was the same thing. SCOV compares the following quotes:
Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing committed under extenuating circumstances that may negate willfulness, such as sudden passion or provocation that would cause a reasonable person to lose control. State v. Blish.
“The element that distinguishes murder from manslaughter is the presence or absence of malice.” State v. Shaw.
So which is it? Malice or intent? 

Latonia Congress was convicted of second-degree murder, based on an altercation between Ms. Congress and her cousin's daughter, Shatavia who lived with Ms. Congress. It's a really sad story. Shatavia died from a knife wound inflicted by Ms. Congress.   
She presented evidence of diminished capacity. Dr. Kinsler (a clinical and forensic psychologist) testified that she “went into a dissociative state,” and acted “automatically and without conscious control.” Other evidence presented at trial showed that the two women were fighting and that the victim was stabbed in the heart. The State also called an expert who rebutted Dr. Kinsler by saying something to the effect of, "Well, psychology can't really tell what a person is thinking."

The question then was put to the trial judge. Should the judge instruct the jury that they may convict Ms. Congress of voluntary manslaughter if they find that she had "diminished capacity"? The defendant argued that this would be proper. The State disagreed, arguing there is either intent or no intent. Specifically, the trial judge wanted to know “How can you have a little bit of intent?” The judge ruled in favor of the State and issued an instruction that only really sounded like "heat of passion" would excuse murder to manslaughter. The judge's instruction placed diminished capacity on a plane with the State's burden to prove the elements of the crime (intentional, killing, with malice). In essence, the judge told the jury, "if you think she was totally out of her mind then you should find her not guilty of anything." This gave the jury the "all or nothing" dilemma. The defendant wanted a happy medium because it really just didn't seem like acquittal was in the cards for her.

"Why?" you might ask. Well . . . you see, some of the evidence was not so good. In fact, it did not look good at all. There was evidence of threatening language ("I’m going to kill that bitch”) and evidence that defendant initiated the argument and started the fight that led to the stabbing. The details are very bloody and the evidence, viewed in one way at least, indicated that defendant was angry and aggressive.

On appeal, Ms. Congress argued that the judge should have given an instruction about how if the jury found she had diminished capacity during the encounter, then she could be convicted of voluntary manslaughter. SCOV does not agree and upholds the conviction.

The reasoning goes a little something like this . . .

Both second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter require intent. Diminished capacity negates intent. Therefore, voluntary manslaughter can only be found where the intent is formed but that circumstances existed which would cause a reasonable person to lose control. This does not justify the killing but the lesser charge may be appropriate. Likewise, if the defendant has proven diminished capacity they can not be guilty of murder or voluntary manslaughter because there was no intent.

Justice Reiber was not so convinced. In a scathing dissent, he calls this reconciliation a "meaningless semantic distinction" and "an analytic flaw." He disagrees that the split in case-law was so clear and posits that this case overturned four decades of decisions. The dissenting Chief Justice would leave the question to the jury to decide. He is not happy with the "malice-negating, intent-negating" analysis. Instead, he submits that the jury should be free to decide if "defendant acted under the influence of a mental disease or defect not rising to the level of insanity." He references decisions from over 150 years ago as well as the modern Model Penal Code in support of his position. He appeals to the need for mercy within the law. And, in concluding he states that the decision "defies common sense, reason, and authority" and that the source of our common-law cannot be found in books, but rather it comes from within the human heart. His argument is certainly thought provoking and authoritative enough to make one wonder, if this is the last we will see of diminished capacity manslaughter or whether we do really live in a "all-or-nothing" insanity-defense state.

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