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A voluntary manslaughter jury instruction is required, where objective circumstances supporting imperfect self defense, even if delusional

People v. Schuller (Cal. Ct. App., Nov. 10, 2021, No. C087191) 2021 WL 5228434, at *1

Summary: Schuller, shot his long-time friend, W.T., nine times in the head and set the body on fire.  Schuller testified, claiming self-defense, but his trial testimony about suggested he was delusional and hallucinating. Following a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, a jury found Schuller guilty of first degree murder in the guilt phase. He was found legally sane and sentenced to a term of 50 years to life.

On appeal, Schuller contends the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect self-defense. He argues that evidence demonstrates he had an actual, albeit unreasonable, belief in the need for self-defense that was not entirely delusional. The Courtnof appeal agreed but find the error harmless.

Defense Request for an Imperfect Self-Defense Instruction

The defense requested an instruction on voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect self-defense. The trial court denied the request. The trial court noted that actions based solely on delusion cannot form the basis for imperfect self-defense. The court examined the evidence to determine whether  Schuller’s delusions could be separated from his testimony of being attacked by W.T. It concluded that in this  case all the “statements and the conduct which defendant attributes to [W.T.] are all … part of and arise out of defendant’s delusions and hallucinations.”

Schuller’s claim of self-defense

Schuller contends the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter based on a theory of imperfect self-defense. He argues that despite making many delusional claims at trial, he testified to a relatively straightforward claim of self-defense: W.T. attacked with a knife and he shot in self-defense.

Delusions, Hallucinations, and Imperfect Self-Defense

When there is substantial evidence that the defendant killed in imperfect self-defense, the trial court must instruct on voluntary manslaughter. (People v. Elmore (2014) 59 Cal.4th 121, 134, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 413, 325 P.3d 951 (Elmore); People v. Breverman (1998) 19 Cal.4th 142, 162, 77 Cal.Rptr.2d 870, 960 P.2d 1094.) In this context, substantial evidence is “ ‘ “evidence from which a jury composed of reasonable [persons] could … conclude[ ]’ ” that the lesser offense, but not the greater, was committed.” (Breverman, at p. 162, 77 Cal.Rptr.2d 870, 960 P.2d 1094.) “ ‘[S]ubstantial evidence to support instructions on a lesser included offense may exist even in the face of inconsistencies presented by the defense itself.’ ” (People v. Millbrook (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1122, 1137, 166 Cal.Rptr.3d 217 (Millbrook).) “In deciding whether there is substantial evidence of a lesser offense, courts should not evaluate the credibility of witnesses.” (Breverman, at p. 162, 77 Cal.Rptr.2d 870, 960 P.2d 1094.) That is a task for the jury. (Ibid.)

De Novo review of trial court’s refusal to instruct on a lesser

An appellate court reviews the trial court’s refusal to instruct on a lesser included offense de novo and considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant. (People v. Campbell (2020) 51 Cal.App.5th 463, 501, 265 Cal.Rptr.3d 136 (Campbell); People v. Brothers (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 24, 30, 186 Cal.Rptr.3d 98 (Brothers); Millbrook, at p. 1137, 166 Cal.Rptr.3d 217.)

Voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect or unreasonable self-defense is available to a defendant who had an actual, but unreasonable, belief in the need for self-defense. (Elmore, supra, 59 Cal.4th at pp. 121, 129, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 413, 325 P.3d 951.) It mitigates murder to manslaughter because malice “ ‘cannot coexist’ ” with an actual, although mistaken, belief in the need to defend oneself from the victim’s imminent attack. (Id. at pp. 129-130, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 413, 325 P.3d 951.)

The California Supreme Court, in Elmore explained, “unreasonable self-defense involves a misperception of objective circumstances, not a reaction produced by mental disturbance alone.” (Elmore, supra, 59 Cal.4th at pp. 134-135, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 413, 325 P.3d 951.) “ ‘[U]nreasonable self-defense ‘is based on a defendant’s assertion that he lacked malice … because he acted under an unreasonable mistake of fact—that is, the need to defend himself against imminent peril of death or great bodily harm.’ ” (Id. at p. 136, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 413, 325 P.3d 951.) And “because unreasonable self-defense is ‘a species of mistake of fact [Citation] … it cannot be founded on delusion.’ ” (Ibid.)

“(U)nreasonable self-defense, as a form of mistake of fact, has no application when the defendant’s actions are entirely delusional. A defendant who makes a factual mistake misperceives the objective circumstances. A delusional defendant holds a belief that is divorced from the circumstances.” (Elmore, supra, 59 Cal.4th at pp. 136-137) But the Elmore court was careful to note: “[a] defendant who misjudges the external circumstances may show that mental disturbance contributed to the mistaken perception of a threat,” and thus “defendants who mistakenly believed that actual circumstances required their defensive act may argue they are guilty only of voluntary manslaughter, even if their reaction was distorted by mental illness.” (Id. at p. 146, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 413, 325 P.3d 951, italics added.)

The Elmore court explained: “The line between mere misperception and delusion is drawn at the absence of an objective correlate.” (Elmore, supra, 59 Cal.4th at p. 137, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 413, 325 P.3d 951, italics added.) For example, “[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.” (Ibid.) Given the Elmore court’s distinction between “misperceive[ing] objective circumstances,” and holding a belief that is “divorced from the circumstances,” and its snake example, we understand the reference to “an objective correlate” to relate to the presence or absence of objective circumstances supporting a claim of imperfect self-defense.

As the court noted in People v. Ocegueda (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 1393, 203 Cal.Rptr.3d 233 (Ocegueda), no corroborating evidence is required beyond a defendant’s statement or testimony. (Id. at pp.1409-1410, 203 Cal.Rptr.3d 233.) It is for the jury to decide whether a defendant is credible. (Id. at p. 1409, 203 Cal.Rptr.3d 233.) Thus, a single witness, including the defendant, can provide evidence establishing the objective circumstances necessary to support the instruction. (Id. at pp. 1401, 1409, 203 Cal.Rptr.3d 233.)

The trial court does not determine the credibility of the defense evidence” (People v. Salas (2006) 37 Cal.4th 967, 982, 38 Cal.Rptr.3d 624, 127 P.3d 40), and a court is not permitted to concern itself with inconsistencies in the evidence (Millbrook, supra, 222 Cal.App.4th at p. 1137, 166 Cal.Rptr.3d 217), rather the court must “consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant.” (Campbell, supra, 51 Cal.App.5th at p. 501, 265 Cal.Rptr.3d 136; Brothers, supra, 236 Cal.App.4th at p. 30, 186 Cal.Rptr.3d 98; Millbrook, at p. 1137, 166 Cal.Rptr.3d 217.)
The trial court erred in refusing to instruct on voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect self-defense.

 

 

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