Category Archives: Lesser Included Jury Instruction

Premeditated Murder Unproved.

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In State v. Hummel, the WA Court of Appeals Division I reversed a defendant’s conviction for first degree murder due to insufficient evidence of premeditation. It reasoned that proof of a strong motive to kill the victim does not, in itself, establish planning or the method of killing. Because the prosecutor did not request the court instruct the jury on murder in the second degree, the Court dismissed the case with prejudice.

The facts are interesting. Two juries in Whatcom County Superior Court found defendant Bruce Allen Hummel guilty of killing his wife, Alice Hummel. Both were retired Alaska teachers. Their two daughters lived on Alabama Hill in Bellingham in the early 1990s. This case was heavily covered in the Bellingham Herald.

The story begins with Mr. Hummel informing their children that their mother decided to move away and leave the family. Over the years, the girls continued to receive letters and gifts in the mail from Alice. Bruce Hummel told the girls Alice had earned a promotion and moved to Texas.

In 2001, the girls reported their mother missing in 2001. They recalled the strange circumstances of their mom’s disappearance. Bellingham police detectives found only traces of their mother’s existence: a current driver’s license from Alaska, monthly disability deposits from a teachers’ retirement system in Alaska, and withdrawals from a bank account in Alaska. Once detectives confronted him with $340,000 in disability checks he had collected under Alice’s name, Mr. Hummel admitted Mrs. Hummel had been dead for years. He claimed she committed suicide by cutting her wrists. Her body was never found.

Hummel was convicted of 12 counts of wire fraud in federal court, for the theft of the disability checks, then charged with murder in the first degree in Whatcom County.

At his first trial in August 2009, Hummel of first-degree murder in August 2009. He appealed as he started serving a sentence of 45 years in prison. The Washington State Court of Appeals found, in 2012, that that there was sufficient evidence to prove the case, but that Hummel’s rights were violated during voir dire, when potential jurors were questioned in private about sensitive issues in their personal lives. (Many other similar, serious cases have been overturned in Washington for not undertaking what is called the Bone-Club analysis, essentially a checklist to avoid violating a defendant’s right to a public trial).

At his second trial in May 2014, Hummel was again convicted of first-degree murder. This time he was sentenced to 26 years in prison, a shorter term because the Court of Appeals found his federal crimes should not count toward his criminal history because there was no comparable state law to federal wire fraud in 1990.

Hummel appealed with assistance from the Washington Appellate Project. Hummel argued there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction because the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the essential element of premeditation.
The Court of Appeals agreed. It reasoned that no trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Hummel killed Alice with premeditated intent to commit murder in the first degree. Reversal for insufficient evidence is “equivalent to an acquittal” and bars retrial for the same offense.  Also, the Court reasoned that the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids a second trial for the purpose of affording the prosecution another opportunity to supply evidence which it failed to muster in prior proceedings. Because the prosecutor did not request the court instruct the jury on the lesser included crime of murder in the second degree, the Court of Appeals held it could not remand to enter a judgment on murder in the second degree.
The Court of Appeals reversed and vacate the conviction for premeditated murder in the first degree, and remand the case back to Superior Court to dismiss the conviction with prejudice.
My opinion? This isn’t over. I’m certain the State shall appeal to the WA Supreme Court.

Assault is “Lesser Included” Charge for Indecent Liberties.

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In State v. Bluford, the  WA Court of Appeals Div. I decided that Assault in the Fourth Degree satisfies the legal prong of the lesser included offense test for the crime of Indecent Liberties. Charles Bluford appealed his conviction for Indecent Liberties on arguments that the trial court failed to instruct the jury on the lesser charge of assault.

For those who don’t know, a “lesser-included” offense shares some, but not all, of the elements of a greater criminal offense. Therefore, the greater offense cannot be committed without also committing the lesser offense. For example, Manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder, assault is a lesser included offense of rape, and unlawful entry is a lesser included offense of Burglary.

Here, the Court reasoned that instructing juries on lesser included offenses “is crucial to the integrity of our criminal justice system,” and that  courts should therefore “err on the side of instructing juries on lesser included offenses.” Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that courts should instruct the jury about a lesser included offense if the jury could find that the defendant committed only the lesser included offense.

The Court analyzed whether a defendant is entitled to a lesser included offense instruction under the test announced in State v. Workman. Under this test, the defendant is entitled to a lesser included jury instruction when (1) each of the elements of the lesser offense is a necessary element of the charged offense and (2) the evidence in the case supports an inference that the lesser crime was committed.

The court applied the Workman test and decided Bluford should have been granted a lesser included instruction for assault fourth degree. Here, the State charged Bluford with one count of Indecent Liberties. This requires that a person “knowingly cause another person who is not his or her spouse to have sexual contact with him or her or another.. . by forcible compulsion.” Accordingly, this crime requires knowledge as the mental state. Therefore, Workman’s factual prong was satisfied.

The common-law definition of assault that applies is an “unlawful touching with criminal intent.” Thus, reasoned the court, fourth-degree assault requires intent as the mental state.  Indecent liberties also requires “sexual contact.” Thus, the State must prove that the defendant acted with a sexual purpose. Accordingly, fourth-degree assault does not require a higher mental state than indecent liberties. Therefore, reasoned the Court, the Workman test’s legal prong is met here, as well.

Consequently, Bluford was entitled to a lesser included offense instruction on fourth-degree assault.

The court reversed his conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. Sometimes, Prosecutors “overcharge” the seriousness of criminal acts. For example, some offenses charged as Assault in the Second Degree should really be charged as Assault in the Fourth Degree. Consequently, it’s imperative for competent defense attorneys to try convincing judges to give more options to juries than “guilty” or “innocent” on overcharged offenses.

That’s why the “lesser included instruction” tactic is a valuable trial tool to seek reductions, especially for sex offenses, which are some of the most damaging criminal charges one could possibly face. A sexual assault or sex crime carries serious penalties, including loss of freedom, sexual deviancy treatment, lengthy registration requirements and negative public stigma. Sexual assault convictions also limit future job opportunities and possibly prevent people from seeing their families. The effects are devastating. For more information on sex offense defense, please read my practice area labelled Sex Offenses.

State v. Henderson: Lesser Included Jury Instructions

 

In State v. Henderson, the Washington Supreme Court decided that the jury of a defendant charged with first degree murder by extreme indifference should have been instructed on the lesser included offense of first degree manslaughter.

Some background on “Lesser Included” Crime is necessary. In short it is a lesser crime whose elements are encompassed by a greater crime. A lesser included offense shares some, but not all, of the elements of a greater criminal offense. Therefore, the greater offense cannot be committed without also committing the lesser offense. For example, Manslaughter is a lesser included offense of Murder, Assault is a lesser included offense of Rape, and Unlawful Entry is a lesser included offense of Burglary.

Here, the defendant Marsele Henderson fired gunshots at a house party on November 16, 2008. One of the most important – and disputed – facts in this case is how many people were in the area in front of the house at this time just prior to shots being fired toward the house. Was it a small group of people or a large group? Witness testimony on this point varied significantly.  This question mattered because whether Henderson shot into a large crowd of people or whether he shot toward an area with very few people determined the nature of the crime.

A month after the shooting, prosecutors charged Henderson with Murder in the First Degree by Extreme Indifference under RCW 9A.32.030(1)(b). At trial, Henderson asked that the jury be instructed on the lesser included charge of Manslaughter in the First Degree under RCW 9A.32.060.  Initially, the Prosecutor agreed. However, the Prosecutor later changed its position. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion for a lesser included jury instruction. The jury convicted Henderson of Murder in the First Degree by Extreme Indifference. Henderson appealed, contending that the trial court erred when it refused to instruct the jury on Manslaughter in the First Degree. The Court of Appeals decided that Henderson should have been granted the lesser-included jury instruction. The state appealed.

Ultimately, the Washington Supreme Court decided the issue of whether Henderson was entitled to a jury instruction on Manslaughter First Degree as a lesser included charge to Murder in the First Degree by Extreme Indifference.

The WA Supremes upheld the Court of Appeals and decided that Henderson should have been granted the lesser-included jury instruction. It affirmed the Court of Appeals and reversed Henderson’s conviction.

In reaching this decision, the court reasoned that under State v. Workman, a defendant is entitled to an instruction on a lesser included offense when (1) each of the elements of the lesser offense is a necessary element of the charged offense and (2) the evidence in the case supports an inference that the lesser crime was committed. Under this framework, the court based their conclusion on two unique aspects of the case.

First, this crime involved a shooting outside a house party and the evidence consisted largely of eyewitness testimony that varied widely and was often conflicting. Thus, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant results in a much more significant shift than it would in cases with uncontroverted evidence.

Second, the definitions of the lesser crime (disregarding a substantial risk that a homicide may occur) and the greater crime (creating a grave risk of death) are very close to each other-much closer than is typical.

As a result, the WA Supremes could not say that no jury could have rationally found that the defendant committed the lesser crime rather than the greater crime. Thus, the court held that the jury should have been allowed to determine whether Henderson committed the greater or lesser crime.

My opinion? Good decision.

In criminal trials, juries are given the option of convicting defendants of lesser included offenses when warranted by the evidence. Giving juries this option is crucial helps our criminal justice system because when defendants are charged with only one crime, juries must either convict them of that crime or let them go free. In some cases, that will create a risk that the jury will convict the defendant despite having reasonable doubts.

To minimize that risk, courts prefer to err on the side of instructing juries on lesser included offenses. Under State v. Fernandez-Medina, a jury must be allowed to consider a lesser included offense if the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant, raises an inference that the defendant committed the lesser crime instead of the greater crime. If a jury could rationally find a defendant guilty of the lesser offense and not the greater offense, the jury MUST be instructed on the lesser offense.