Wednesday, February 23, 2005

MURDER OR MANSLAUGHTER

The trial of Martin Saiz, which ended in a conviction of first degree murder in Albuquerque Monday, is a study in criminal procedure. The jury was allowed to consider second degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter, as well as first degree murder. Voluntary manslaughter is an unlawful killing "upon sufficient provocation." When I saw in the paper that the jury had been instructed on voluntary manslaughter, I was worried. What if the jury finds manslaughter, and on appeal the accused claims that the evidence was sufficient to convict of murder, but that there was no evidence of manslaughter? What would be the result if the appellate court agreed? The lawyers would argue "precedent." They would cite State v. Reed, 39 N.M. 44 (1934) [Volume 39, New Mexico Reports, page 44]. They would also cite Smith v. State, 89 N.M. 770 (1976) [Volume 89, New Mexico Reports, page 770]. "A page of history is worth a volume of logic."

In the Reed case, Reed was charged with murder by torture, but the jury was also instructed on second degree murder. The jury convicted of second degree murder. On appeal, the Supreme Court pointed out that the defense was alibi, and that the evidence showed that the killing was torture murder (first degree). The Court reversed the conviction and set the accused free of all charges. At page 51, the Court stated, "Impressed as we are that these appellants [defendant] go unwhipped of justice, it is not for us to vary the Constitution and laws. ..."

In the Smith case, some of the three defendants beat the female victim into unconsciousness with a pipe or fence post, and placed her in the trunk of the car, naked. The three defendants went in the car to an oil well slush pit tank [Lea County}. The three defendants removed the victim from the trunk of the car and threw the victim naked into a tank containing 14 inches of an "oil substance." The co-defendants stood on and sat on the victim to hold her under, and she drowned in oil. It was likely that she would have died from the wounds in any event. Smith stood on the tank ladder and assisted one of the co-defendants out of the tank.

The two co-defendants pleaded guilty to second degree murder. Smith was tried for murder but the jury was also instructed on manslaughter (that is, the jury was given the choice of murder or manslaughter). The jury convicted of manslaughter. Smith appealed, arguing that the evidence was sufficient to support a conviction of murder, but that there was no evidence of [sufficient legal provocation] to justify a conviction of manslaughter.

The prosecution argued that Smith got off too lightly, but that he should not be heard to complain. The Supreme Court ruled that there was sufficient evidence for a conviction of murder, but not manslaughter. The Court reversed the conviction, and set Smith free. One Justice did not participate. The other four were unanimous.

Back to the Saiz case, and 2005. In the Saiz case, the verdict was murder in the first degree, so the issue will not come up as it did in the Reed and Smith cases. So why get into all of this? It is criminal justice seen.

3 comments:

Der Tommissar said...

Great post!

I found this to be fascinating; what we have here are some extreme cases of an appeals court setting aside the conviction of a sitting jury.

Could you go over in a post the situations in which an appeals court can set aside a jury verdict based purely on the facts of a case? I mean, from what I've just read those two precedents weren't based on any specific point of law or "technicality". Basically, the appeals court ruled that the jury in each case didn't get their verdict right.

Jack L. Love said...

Tom, you have made a good point. It is not a "technicality" when the appellate Court decides that no reasonable jury could have found the facts to be thus and so; or when the Court on appeal finds that no reasonable Judge could have found the facts to be thus and so. Here the Supreme Court found that no reasonable jury could have found that the accused killed other than by torture (Reed case); and that no reasonable jury could have found provocation (Smith case). Thus those verdicts by the jury, second degree murder in the Reed case, and manslaughter in the Smith case, were not supported by the evidence and should not stand, if those were stand-alone charges. But here, in these cases, the charges were not stand-alone. The appellate Court said that the evidence showed the defendant was guilty, but guilty of a greater degree of unlawful homicide than the jury found. What then? Release him? Or say, you got off light; do not complain. I believe the "technicality" is this: in deliberating, the jury considers first degree murder, then second degree, then manslaughter. The verdict is manslaughter. I believe it is a "technical" approach to say that the verdict of guilty of manslaughter means that the jury unanimously found the accused not guilty of murder one and two. The only verdict returned, signed, was "guilty of manslaughter" (Smith case). Yes, I will try in a later post to go into this some more. jll

Chip Morgan said...

Good Job :))

Chip http://www.focusedinterview.com