Tuesday, April 26, 2016

People v. McGehee (Cal. Ct. App. - April 26, 2016)

Here's a neat little hypothetical that you might discuss in a class on criminal law.  Except for Mr. McGehee, it's not a hypothetical, but instead, his actual life.

Mr. McGehee stabs something ten times with a kitchen knife, killing it.

(A) If the thing he killed was a deer, then he's not guilty of any crime.  (Assuming that there's no animal cruelty, out-of-season hunting, etc.)

(B) If the thing he killed was a person, but he thought that it was a deer when he killed it, then we all agree he's not guilty of murder.  Maybe he's guilty of some lesser crimes, depending on his precise mental state and reasonableness of his belief that it was a deer.  But not murder.

(C) If the thing he killed was a person, and he knew it was a person, then he's generally guilty of murder.  Maybe he's insane -- that's the second phase of the trial.  But murder at the first phase.

Now for the hard question.  The one raised squarely in this case:

(D)  What if the thing he killed was a person, but he thought it was a demon?

Demon = Deer = Manslaughter?  Or Demon = Person = Murder?

Everyone concedes that his belief that the thing -- in this case, his mother -- was a demon is relevant to the sanity phase.  But what about the first phase?  If you think that a demon is a non-person, so is more like a deer, then his belief that he was killing a demon is relevant to whether he had the intent to kill a person.  Since demons aren't persons.  So it's relevant to the first phase of the trial.

But if you think that demons are more like people than deer, then his belief that it was a demon that he was killing isn't relevant to the first phase, so he's not entitled to an instruction on manslaughter; e.g., a crime that doesn't involve the premeditated killing of a person.

The Court of Appeal holds today that a demon is more like a person than a deer.  So no instruction on manslaughter.

Justice Hoch's opinion never uses the deer analogy.  That's my addition.  But the opinion nonetheless concludes the same way.  Holding:  "[D]efendant argues he was entitled to involuntary manslaughter instructions because substantial evidence supported the view he hallucinated an attack by a demon, and therefore did not intend to kill a human being, but instead intended to kill a demon. This too is quintessentially a claim of insanity. Its rationale is that because of defendant‟s mental illness, he was unable to understand the nature and quality of the criminal act, i.e., he was killing a human being rather than a demon. Such a claim may be made, but must be made during the sanity phase of the trial."

I wonder whether Justice Hoch would say the same thing if Mr. McGehee's mental illness made him think he was stabbing a deer.

Regardless:  That's today's holding.