Austin v. United States

The Facts

Defendant indicted for murder with premeditation, deliberation, and malice aforethought.  Defendant and victim were drinking together late into the night.  Defendant was seen with a pocket knife at a restaurant.  Defendant and victim were with another woman at a late night diner where they brought and ate sandwiches.  Defendant first dropped of the other woman.  “The government produced no witness as to what happened thereafter.”  Two police officers later saw defendant’s truck parked near a parkway.  They saw defendant walk up into his car and drive away.  Later bloody clothing was found in a grassy area near the bay as was a bloody clothing.  The officers then later retrieved the mutilated body of the victim, which was nearly lifeless.  Victim had been stabbed 26 times.  Also at the crime scene was found a bloody and torn shirt similar to one owned by the defendant.

Procedural History

Convicted at trial of first-degree murder.  Defendant moved at trial for acquittal of first degree murder, which was denied.  The jury was instructed that “premeditation is the formation of an intention to kill, an deliberation means a further thought upon the plan to kill.”  “The judge charged the jury that although some time is required for deliberation, deliberation may be sufficient though it be of an exceedingly brief duration, and that the time may be in the nature of hours, minutes or seconds.”

The Issue

Whether the facts presented “present evidence of premeditation and deliberation sufficient to warrant retention of the charge of murder in the first degree when gauged by proper tests.”

The Holding/Reasoning

No.  “There is nothing deliberate and premeditated about a killing which is done within a second or two after the accused first thinks of doing it… the design of the accused to kill must have preceded his actions by an appreciable period of time before deliberation can be found.”  The element of “appreciable time” lapse is necessary but not sufficient to establish the deliberation which the prosecution in this case seeks.  A particular period of time is not necessary for deliberation, and the time element does not need to be longer than a few minutes.  A sudden passion can last for an appreciable time period, yet the element of deliberation can be unsatisfied.  A jury may be properly instructed when “a homicide conceived in passion constitutes murder in the first degree only if the jury is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an appreciable time after the design was conceived and that in this interval there was a further thought, and a turning over in the mind-and not a mere persistence of the initial impulse of passion.”

In this case there was insufficient evidence to submit to the jury a finding of deliberation and premeditation.  The horrifying nature of this crime does not in itself show first degree deliberation.  Many horrifying crimes can be committed in the heat of passion/in the second degree.  Because he carried a knife does not imply his premeditation, because defendant always carried the pocket knife with him.  The evidence does not either suggest that defendant had time to “cogitate and mull over the intent to kill.”  Moreover, the prosecution did not show evidence of any motive to kill, which would support the elements of premeditation and deliberation.  Hiding a body, moreover, does not show premeditation or deliberation.  It only shows an attempt to cover up the crime.

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