Constitution Requires Jury Instruction on Imperfect Self-Defense for Defendant With Good-Faith Belief in Need for Lethal Force

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Jason Carl Schuller was accused of the first-degree murder of his friend W.T. At his trial, Schuller pled not guilty by reason of insanity. Evidence, including testimony by a neighbor, showed W.T. had received nine gunshot wounds to his head as well as serious burn injuries. The jury heard evidence about Schuller’s mental state and frequent drug use near the time of the murder, which allegedly caused him to have visual and auditory hallucinations that included seeing lights that signaled the second coming of Christ.

Schuller’s attorney requested a jury instruction of voluntary manslaughter based on “imperfect self-defense”. He provided evidence from the crime scene, including flames coming from burners on a gas stove, that supported “a finding that the defendant mistakenly believed the actual circumstances required him to act in self-defense.” For example, Schuller testified that he believed W.T was actually Lucifer and was coming after him. The prosecution countered by arguing that the defendant’s insanity claims should have been raised earlier, during a separate insanity trial. The trial court agreed.

The trial jury also heard testimony from two forensic psychologists who agreed that Schuller was “exaggerating” his mental distress. The defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder. After the verdict, the trial did proceed to a sanity phase, during which the jury found Schuller legally sane. He appealed, and the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the trial court had erred when it denied his request for an instruction on imperfect self-defense because they felt the “shooting was not entirely delusional” (italics in original). The appellate justices found that Nevada County Superior Court Judge Candace S. Heidelberger erred when she failed to give the appropriate instruction. However, Justice William Murray Jr. of the Third District said that Heidelberger’s faulty instruction was “harmless error.”

The Supreme Court of California disagreed in a unanimous 7-0 opinion written by Justice Joshua P. Groban on August 17. The opinion summarized, “The sole question presented in this case is whether the trial court’s error in declining Schuller’s request for an instruction on imperfect self-defense was prejudicial.” The Supreme Court’s opinion focused on whether state or federal law should determine whether Schuller had suffered prejudice.

The trial court believed California state law, which requires that a finding of prejudice meet only a “reasonable probability standard,” should be used. The Third District Court of Appeals agreed and added that even if the federal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” had been applied, it still would have found “Schuller had suffered no prejudice based on the “overwhelming evidence that was not acting in any form of self-defense.”

Groban wrote that the “harmless error standard,” applied by the Third District Court was an incorrect way to evaluate evidence under what is a matter of federal precedent. He said that the reviewing court has to “reverse the conviction unless it concludes that no rational jurors…could have had reasonable doubt… (about) the findings necessary to convict the defendant.” The appellate court “did not fully appreciate the proper standard for harmlessness.”

The opinion explained, “This is because the federal Constitution requires ‘criminal convictions to rest upon a jury determination that the defendant is guilty of every element of the crime with which he is charged, beyond a reasonable doubt.” In addition, he noted, “The key inquiry is whether the instruction operated to “preclude the jury from making a finding on any fact necessary to establish an element of the offense.”

Groban then distinguished murder, which requires malice aforethought, from the lesser crime of manslaughter. He said the trial court’s denial of a request to instruct on imperfect self-defense operated to “misdescribe the malice element of murder,” and thus was a “federal constitutional error.” Malice, he further explained, “exists when an unlawful homicide was committed with the ‘intention unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow creature, or with awareness of the danger and a conscious disregard for life.”

He went on to explain that California law finds two circumstances that can limit a finding of malice. These are exclusions for actions in the heat of passion and for “an unreasonable or good faith belief of having to act in self-defense.” Since the second exclusion was present in Schuller’s case, he had to establish malice beyond a reasonable doubt. “Without an instruction on imperfect self-defense, the jurors in this case were never informed that if they harbored a reasonable doubt whether Schuller was operating under an actual but unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense, they were required to acquit him of murder for lack of malice,” Groban wrote.

The jurors thus obtained “an incomplete or misleading description of what is necessary to establish an element of the offense,” the opinion said. It concluded, “In sum…our high court’s decisions make clear that if a state chooses to recognize a defensive theory that operates to negate an element of the charged offense, the due process clause requires the prosecution to prove the absence of that circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt.” The trial court thus violated the federal constitution and the court of appeal was incorrect in determining this was harmless error. It incorrectly held that there was “overwhelming evidence Schuller was not acting in any form of self-defense.”

The Court of Appeal’s harmless error analysis was therefore faulty under federal constitutional standards. The judgment affirming Schuller’s conviction was reversed and remanded with instructions that the “court reconsider whether the failure to instruct on imperfect self-defense was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University where she taught media law and writing and served as an administrator. Previously, she worked in the Carter White House and U.S. Congress, She is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's from USC.
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