Friday, June 21, 2013

Murder or Manslaughter: California’s Standard for Provocation

What kind of provocation will suffice to constitute heat of passion and reduce a murder charge to manslaughter in California?  This is the question the Supreme Court of California answered on June 3, 2013, in People v. Beltran.  The government argued that the provocation must be of the sort that would cause an ordinary person of average disposition to kill.  However, the court rejected this argument, relying on the same rationale it adopted nearly one hundred years ago in People v. Logan[1].  The court held that provocation into the heat of passion is sufficient to constitute manslaughter only when an ordinary person of average disposition “would be induced to react from passion and not from judgment.”

Tare Beltran and Claire Tempongko began dating in 1998. Shortly thereafter, Beltran moved into the San Francisco apartment in which Tempongko lived with her nine-year-old son and younger daughter.  Between this time and September 2000, Beltran and Tempongko tried to get pregnant, but Beltran believed they were unsuccessful.  Also during this time, there were several instances of domestic violence, which resulted in Tempongko ending the relationship and obtaining a restraining order against Beltran.

Shortly thereafter, Tempongko began dating another man.  On October 22, 2000, Tempongko was shopping with her children and new boyfriend when Beltran called.  After the call, Tempongko became upset and subsequently continued to receive calls from Beltran on her way home.  Tempongko became nervous about returning home as she planned, and when she neared her apartment, she saw a green Honda parked outside.  Tempongko then instructed her boyfriend to circle the block a few times.  When the Honda finally left, Tempongko went inside her apartment.  Concerned for her safety, Tempongko’s boyfriend called several times but could not reach her, so he drove back to the apartment where he saw a man running across the street.  Later that day, a neighbor learned from Tempongko’s son that Beltran had killed Tempongko in her apartment.  Tempongko had been stabbed multiple times in the upper body, arms, hands, and face.  Six years later Beltran was found and arrested in Mexico.

Tempongko’s son contends that Beltran broke into Tempongko’s apartment, began yelling and questioning Tempongko about where she had been, then walked to the kitchen, retrieved a knife, and stabbed Tempongko as she tried to defend herself.

Beltran, on the other hand, testified that he and Tempongko were scheduled to have lunch that day but instead Tempongko went shopping.  That evening, he went to Tempongko’s apartment and let himself in with a key because Tempongko was expecting him.  Tempongko then became upset because Beltran was late and began yelling insults at him.  When Beltran was leaving, Tempongko provoked Beltran by telling him that she had aborted their child.  Beltran was shocked because Tempongko had never mentioned an abortion before.  Beltran claims this revelation was so disturbing that he acted rashly, not from reflection, but in reaction to the provocation.  Consequently, Beltran was thrust into the heat of passion, and the next thing he remembers is standing in the living room with a bloody knife.  At trial, the jury was left to determine whether they would convict Beltran of first or second degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter.

The United States’ justice system is premised on community moral condemnation.  Crimes that offend the community’s moral standards are punished.  However, the punishment for different crimes varies based on the culpability of the defendant’s mental state, and the severity of the crime relative to community standards.  Generally, the more culpable an individual’s mental state, the more severely the crime is punished.  Accordingly, first degree murder is generally punished more severely than second degree murder, and second degree murder more severely than manslaughter.

Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.  At common law, malice aforethought is any mental state sufficient for murder.  It can be the intent to kill another human being, intent to inflict grievous bodily harm on another, or, in what is known as depraved heart murder, extreme reckless disregard for human life.

Voluntary manslaughter, on the other hand, does not require malice aforethought.  Voluntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice, upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.  Heat of passion would reduce an unlawful killing from murder to manslaughter.  But if sufficient time has elapsed between the provocation into the sudden heat of passion and the fatal blow, in which a reasonable person would have cooled off, the killing is not voluntary manslaughter.  In Beltran, the court asserted that heat of passion “is a state of mind caused by legally sufficient provocation that causes a person to act, not out of rational thought but out of unconsidered reaction to the provocation.”  Because manslaughter recognizes a fallible human characteristic, and is not committed out of malice, unlike murder, it is punished less severely.  But what provocation is legally sufficient in California to constitute a killing in the heat of passion, and thus reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter?

In Beltran, the government argues that provocation must be of a kind that would cause an ordinary person of average disposition to kill.  If an ordinary person would kill under the circumstances, then a jury may find manslaughter, instead of murder.  However, the defense claims that in order to assess adequate provocation, the question is whether the average person would react by mentally experiencing clouded reason, precluding the formation of malice, not whether the average person would react physically, by killing.

The Supreme Court of California declined to adopt the test proposed by the government, and reaffirmed the standard for determining heat of passion that it adopted nearly a century ago in Logan. It reasoned that accepting a standard that requires provocation such that the ordinary person of average disposition would be moved to kill overlooks the real issue.  With the delineation between voluntary manslaughter and murder, the focus should be directed towards the defendant’s state of mind, not on the defendant’s actions.  The court added that the basic inquiry should be whether the defendant’s reason, at the time of the killing, was so obscured by passion, that an ordinary “person of average disposition would be induced to react from passion and not from judgment.”  Provocation is therefore not measured by whether the average person would act by killing; rather, it is measured by the effect the provocation would have on the average person’s state of mind, and specifically, whether the provocation would cause an average person to act rashly.

Jared Engelking
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

[1] People v. Logan, 175 Cal. 45, 49 (1917).

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