August 29th, 2016

A defendant who acts with the state of mind required for imperfect self-defense does not harbor express malice. “Two factors may preclude the formation of malice and reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter: heat of passion and unreasonable self-defense.” (People v. Elmore (2014) 59 Cal.4th 121, 133. California law allows the jury to consider a defendant’s mental disabilities in deciding whether he or she had an actual but unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense.

In People v. Ocegueda (2016) 247 CA4th 1393 the judge instructed the jury it could consider evidence of defendant’s mental disabilities “only for the limited purpose” of deciding whether defendant harbored the “intent to kill.” However, PC 28 expressly makes evidence of mental disabilities admissible to consider whether a defendant harbored express malice. Therefore, by limiting the jury’s consideration of mental disability evidence to the question of whether defendant had an intent to kill—but not whether he harbored express malice—the judge’s instruction violated PC 28.

In Ocegueda the Attorney General contended that the instruction was correct because the standard instructions on attempted murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter “do not require a showing of malice per se, but instead, a showing of the specific intent to kill.” However, the reviewing court rejected this contention:

[CC 604], the pattern instruction on attempted voluntary manslaughter under a  theory of imperfect self-defense, instructs jurors: “The People have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not acting in imperfect self-defense.” This properly places the burden on the prosecution to prove the existence of malice, not simply the intent to kill. Indeed, one of the requirements of imperfect self-defense as set forth in the pattern instruction is that the “[t]he defendant intended to kill when he acted.”  But this does not make such a defendant guilty of attempted murder. To the contrary, a defendant acting in imperfect self-defense cannot be convicted of attempted murder because murder requires malice, and express malice requires “a deliberate intention  unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow creature.” (Pen. Code, § 188, italics added.) A defendant who intends to kill in imperfect self-defense does not do so “unlawfully” within the meaning of Penal Code section 188. [Citation.] (Ocegueda, supra, at 1409.)

The Attorney General also relied on Elmore to contend that Ocegueda was not entitled to any instruction on imperfect self-defense because that defense can only be supported by a true mistake of fact, not mental disabilities:

“A defendant who makes a factual mistake misperceives the objective circumstances. A delusional defendant holds a belief that is divorced from the circumstances. The line between mere misperception and delusion is drawn at the absence of an objective correlate. A person who sees a stick and thinks it is a snake is mistaken, but that misinterpretation is not delusional. One who sees a snake where there is nothing snakelike, however, is deluded. Unreasonable self-defense was never intended to encompass reactions to threats that exist only in the defendant’s mind.” (Elmore, supra, at p. 137.)

However, the reviewing court in Ocegueda rejected the Attorney General’s contention:

We do not read Elmore as precluding imperfect self-defense in any case where mental disabilities affect the defendant’s beliefs or perceptions. The key distinction identified in Elmore is the “absence of an objective correlate.” (Elmore, supra, 59 Cal.4th at p. 137.) Here, defendant claimed he saw Garcia pull a metal object—which defendant believed to be a gun—out of his waistband. The Attorney General suggests that such a belief, even if genuine, must have been purely delusional because no other witness saw Garcia make such a motion, and no gun or gun-like object was found on Garcia. But a single witness, even if not inherently credible, may provide sufficient evidence to establish a fact. [Citations.] (Ocegueda, supra, at  1409-10.)

Accordingly, whether the defendant’s statements were sufficiently credible or his beliefs purely delusional were questions of fact for the jury to decide. There is no “heightened evidentiary standard requiring corroborating evidence independent of defendant’s statements to show his beliefs were not purely delusional.”

For these reasons, the trial court erred by precluding the jury from considering evidence of defendant’s mental disabilities in deciding whether he harbored the state of mind required for imperfect self-defense.

Tags: ,