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People v. Elmore

Supreme Court of California

June 2, 2014

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
CHARLES ELMORE, Defendant and Appellant

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Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. TA090607, Arthur M. Lew, Judge. Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Seven, No. B216917.

Eric R. Larson, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

Edmund G. Brown, Jr., and Kamala D. Harris, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Pamela C. Hamanaka, Assistant Attorney General, Lawrence M. Daniels, Paul M. Roadarmel, Jr., and Rama R. Maline, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Mitchell Keiter as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion by Corrigan, J., with Cantil-Sakauye, C. J., Baxter, J., and Chin, J., concurring. Concurring and dissenting by Kennard, J., with Werdegar, J., and Liu, J., concurring.


[325 P.3d 955] [172 Cal.Rptr.3d 417] CORRIGAN, J.

A killing committed because of an unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense is voluntary manslaughter, not murder. " Unreasonable self-defense, also called imperfect self-defense, 'obviates malice because

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[172 Cal.Rptr.3d 418] that most culpable of mental states " cannot coexist" with an actual belief that the lethal act was necessary to avoid one's own death or serious injury at the victim's hand.' ( People v. Rios (2000) 23 Cal.4th 450, 461 [97 Cal.Rptr.2d 512, 2 P.3d 1066].)" ( People v. Beltran (2013) 56 Cal.4th 935, 951 [157 Cal.Rptr.3d 503, 301 P.3d 1120].)

The question here is whether the doctrine of unreasonable self-defense is available when belief in the need to defend oneself is entirely delusional. We conclude it is not. No state, it appears, recognizes " delusional self-defense" as a theory of manslaughter. We have noted that unreasonable self-defense involves a mistake of fact . ( In re Christian S. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 768, 779, fn. 3 [30 Cal.Rptr.2d 33, 872 P.2d 574] ( Christian S. ).) A purely delusional belief in the need to act in self-defense may be raised as a defense, but that defense is insanity. Under our statutory scheme, a claim of insanity is reserved for a separate phase of trial. At a trial on the question of guilt, the defendant may not claim unreasonable self-defense based on insane delusion.


The relevant facts are undisputed. Defendant was, by all accounts, mentally ill. He had repeatedly been institutionalized and diagnosed as psychotic. On the day of the killing, he was living in a rehabilitation center. While visiting his grandmother's house that morning, he became fidgety and anxious. At one point, he began to crawl under cars as his family and a friend tried to speak with him. He left his grandmother's home around 12:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, 53-year-old Ella Suggs was doing her weekend shopping. She wore a necklace with a charm in the shape of a turtle, which had a magnifying glass in place of the shell. She also wore reading glasses on a chain around her neck. About 1:00 p.m., Brandon Wilson looked out a restaurant window and noticed Suggs sitting at a bus stop across the street. He saw defendant walk past Suggs, stop, look in both directions, and return to confront her. Defendant did not seem to be talking to himself.

Defendant grabbed Suggs and appeared to pull on something around her neck. Suggs raised her hands defensively, stood, and tried to walk away. Defendant pushed her back to a seated position, brought his hands together over his head, and plunged them toward Suggs's chest. Then he fled, looking around as he ran. Suggs stood for a moment before [325 P.3d 956] falling. She had been stabbed with a paintbrush handle sharpened to a point. The weapon penetrated six or seven inches, through a lung and into her heart. Neither the turtle necklace nor the reading glasses were found at the scene or among Suggs's possessions.

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Within half an hour, Wilson saw defendant return and approach the bus stop. He appeared to be puzzled, and fled. After Wilson alerted a security officer, police apprehended defendant. It took four officers to subdue him. His behavior was sufficiently bizarre that he was referred for psychiatric evaluation.

Charged with murder, defendant pleaded both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. At the guilt phase, forensic psychiatrists were called by both prosecution and defense. They agreed that defendant suffered from schizophrenia, but disputed whether he was actively psychotic when he stabbed Suggs.

Defendant testified, and gave a confused account of the killing. On direct examination, he repeatedly said, " something went wrong out there in the street." When asked for detail, he said, " Somebody was [172 Cal.Rptr.3d 419] saying something violent to me, and I didn't really--it was something violent happening while I was out there." Defense counsel pursued the question of who was violent. Defendant said, " Some person out there," but could not say whether the person was a man or a woman. He claimed to have blacked out. Counsel asked, " Did you pick that paint brush off the ground?" Defendant said, " Yeah, I made an object." " What was it?" counsel asked. " I made an object after I was out on the ground dazed somewhere. After I was on the ground or whatever. However it happened." Defendant admitted using the object but refused to say how. Asked if he stabbed someone with it, he responded, " I suppose." When asked why he stabbed Suggs, defendant answered, " Person said something and did something to me, I didn't just go do it to be doing it." Defendant refused to say what had been done to him, and denied taking anything from Suggs.

The prosecutor was no more successful at eliciting a coherent version of the events. Defendant said that when he was at the bus stop, " They said something to me." He denied asking Suggs for money or being angry that she would not give him any. He admitted making the paintbrush into a weapon " after I got up. I was mad and scared." He then said he did not know if he had made it and thought he picked it up in that condition. [1] He admitted stabbing Suggs, but claimed the act was unintentional. He denied trying to steal anything.

The prosecutor argued for first degree murder, relying on both malice aforethought and felony-murder theories. The defense requested jury instructions on unreasonable self-defense (CALCRIM No. 571), mistake of fact

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(CALCRIM No. 3406), and the effect of hallucination on the degree of murder (CALCRIM No. 627). The court refused those requests, but did tell the jury to consider the evidence of defendant's mental illness in deciding whether he had acted with malice or the intent to rob Suggs. (CALCRIM No. 3428.)

The jury returned a first degree murder conviction. After the guilt phase, against the advice of counsel, defendant withdrew his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. On appeal, he challenged the court's refusal to instruct on unreasonable self-defense and hallucination. The Court of Appeal summarily rejected his argument on unreasonable self-defense, relying on People v. Mejia-Lenares (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1437 [38 Cal.Rptr.3d 404] ( Mejia-Lenares ) for the rule that the doctrine does not apply when belief in the need for self-defense arises solely from the defendant's delusional mental state. However, the court held that the refusal to instruct on hallucination was prejudicial error. It remanded with directions for retrial or a conviction of second degree murder, at the prosecutor's election. [2]

[325 P.3d 957] In this court, defendant contends he was entitled to an instruction on unreasonable self-defense. He does not claim there was any factual basis for him to believe he had to defend himself. His argument is that unreasonable self-defense may be based solely on a defendant's delusional mental state. The same question was raised in People v. Wright (2005) 35 Cal.4th 964 [28 Cal.Rptr.3d 708, 111 P.3d 973], but there we deemed it unnecessary to reach the [172 Cal.Rptr.3d 420] issue. We granted defendant's petition for review in order to settle the question.


A. The Law of Homicide and Unreasonable Self-defense

Homicide, the killing of one human being by another, is not always criminal. In certain circumstances, a killing may be excusable or justifiable. (Pen. Code, § 195 et seq.; [3] see 1 Witkin & Epstein, Cal. Criminal Law (4th ed. 2012) Crimes Against the Person, § 96, pp. 885-886.) Murder and manslaughter are the forms of criminal homicide. " Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being ... with malice aforethought." (§ 187, subd. (a).) Malice aforethought may be express or implied. (§ 188.)

The Penal Code defines express malice as " a deliberate intention unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow creature." (§ 188.) In Christian S., we

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explained that this " inartful language" means the defendant must intend to act unlawfully, or in other words, have a " wrongful intent." ( Christian S., supra, 7 Cal.4th at p. 778.) We rejected the argument that malice turns on whether the killing is deemed lawful, without regard to the defendant's intent. ( Id. at pp. 778-779.) However, the defendant need not intend to break the law or commit a crime. Rather, malice requires an intent to kill that is " unlawful" because the law deems it so. " 'The adverb " unlawfully" in the express malice definition means simply that there is no justification, excuse, or mitigation for the killing recognized by the law.' " ( People v. Saille (1991) 54 Cal.3d 1103, 1115 [2 Cal.Rptr.2d 364, 820 P.2d 588].)

Malice is implied when an unlawful killing results from a willful act, the natural and probable consequences of which are dangerous to human life, performed with conscious disregard for that danger. (§ 188; People v. Gonzalez (2012) 54 Cal.4th 643, 653 [142 Cal.Rptr.3d 893, 278 P.3d 1242]; People v. Knoller (2007) 41 Cal.4th 139, 151-152 [59 Cal.Rptr.3d 157, 158 P.3d 731].)

" A killing with express malice formed willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation constitutes first degree murder." ( People v. Beltran, supra, 56 Cal.4th at p. 942.) " Second degree murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought but without the additional elements, such as willfulness, premeditation, and deliberation, that would support a conviction of first degree murder." ( People v. Knoller, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 151.) Thus, the mens rea required for murder is malice, express or implied. ( Beltran, at p. 942.)

Manslaughter, a lesser included offense of murder, is an unlawful killing without malice. (§ 192; People v. Thomas (2012) 53 Cal.4th 771, 813 [137 Cal.Rptr.3d 533, 269 P.3d 1109].) Section 192 establishes three kinds of manslaughter: voluntary, involuntary, and vehicular. Only voluntary manslaughter is at issue here. Punishment is mitigated for this offense, which the law deems less blameworthy than murder because of the attendant circumstances and their impact on the defendant's mental state. Two factors may preclude the formation of malice and reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter: heat of passion and unreasonable self-defense. ( People v. Beltran, supra, 56 Cal.4th at pp. 942, 951; [172 Cal.Rptr.3d 421] People v. Blakeley (2000) 23 Cal.4th 82, 87-88 [96 Cal.Rptr.2d 451, 999 P.2d 675].) Heat of passion is recognized by statute as a mitigating factor. (§ 192, subd. (a).) Unreasonable self-defense is founded on both statute and the common law. ( People v. Anderson (2002) 28 Cal.4th 767, 782 [122 Cal.Rptr.2d 587, 50 P.3d 368].)

[325 P.3d 958] Self-defense, when based on a reasonable belief that killing is necessary to avert an imminent threat of death or ...

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