People v. Elmore

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People v. Elmore in California

Introduction to People v. Elmore

In People v. Elmore (59 Cal. 4th 121 (2014)), a defendant convicted of murder claimed the trial court erred by not instructing the jury that even if his belief in the need to defend himself was unreasonable, his offense could be reduced to voluntary manslaughter by applying the doctrine of “imperfect self-defense.” The instruction was refused because the defendant’s belief was “entirely delusional.” Seizing on a slippery distinction between an insane delusion and a “mistake of fact,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan, joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Baxter and Chin, concluded that an insanity claim cannot be litigated in the guilt phase of a criminal trial; it requires a separate sanity phase.

In a “concurring and dissenting” opinion joined by Justices Kathryn M. Werdegar and Liu, Kennard relied upon the plain statutory language that evidence of mental disease, mental defect, or mental disorder is admissible “solely on the issue of whether or not the accused actually formed a required specific intent, premeditated, deliberated, or harbored malice aforethought …” (Cal. Penal Code § 28). Kennard correctly concluded that an insane delusion that defeats the showing of malice aforethought for a murder conviction is a guilt-phase issue.

However, Kennard agreed with the majority that the imperfect self-defense argument was properly rejected at trial since the defendant offered no evidence that his delusion posed an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury from the victim.

Although Kennard technically wasn’t dissenting from the judgment, her resolution of the case would have kept the majority from nullifying the unambiguous statutory language.

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