ILNews

Court: No sudden heat, no voluntary manslaughter

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Supreme Court reversed a defendant's conviction of voluntary manslaughter after ruling the trial court erred by instructing the jury about voluntary manslaughter in the absence of evidence of sudden heat.

In Andrew Lee Watts v. State of Indiana, No. 45S03-0611-CR-452, Watts appealed his conviction of voluntary manslaughter following a jury trial. The state charged Watts with murder following a tavern shooting, but also had the jury instructed on the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter.

At trial, Watts requested jury instructions on involuntary manslaughter; the state requested an instruction on voluntary manslaughter, to which Watt's counsel objected on the grounds that evidence of sudden heat - anger or rage provoked by someone else's words or actions - has to be introduced by the defendant. Since Watts didn't introduce evidence of sudden heat, there was no evidence of it on the record. The trial court overruled the objection and provided the jury with instructions on involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, and murder.

When a party asks a trial court to instruct the jury on a lesser-included offense, the court has to conduct a three-pronged analysis to determine whether the instruction is appropriate. In Wright v. State, 658 N.E.2d 563 (Ind. 1995), the high court held it would be a reversible error for a trial court to refuse to instruct a jury on a lesser-included offense in the presence of a serious evidentiary dispute. The court didn't address the opposite: that it would also be a reversible error to give an instruction in a lesser included offense in the absence of a serious evidentiary dispute, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.

This error by the trial court is not harmless and shows how a voluntary manslaughter instruction in the absence of sudden heat can prejudice a defendant.

"In a situation where a jury must choose between a murder conviction and an acquittal, the defendant might well be acquitted. But if the jury has voluntary manslaughter as an intermediate option, the defendant might be convicted of voluntary manslaughter as a 'compromise.' Such a verdict is not appropriate if unsupported by any evidence of sudden heat; moreover, an unsupported voluntary manslaughter instruction deprives the defendant of the opportunity to pursue a legitimate trial strategy," wrote Justice Sullivan.

There was no evidence on the record to show sudden heat before the jury and Watts' defense counsel's objections should have been sustained. Even though the counsel didn't say the exact words ideally required in these circumstances -objecting on the grounds that no evidence of sudden heat had been introduced in general, not just by the defendant - the issue was adequately preserved for appeal, he wrote. As such, the Supreme Court reversed Watts' conviction.

However, in his dissent, Justice Ted Boehm wrote that Watts didn't preserve this error for appeal.

"The majority views this objection as having preserved the objection that there is no evidence of sudden heat, and reverses the conviction of voluntary manslaughter on that ground. ...The objection here did not accomplish that objective because it did not focus the trial court on the problem in the instruction - the lack of evidence of sudden heat," he wrote.
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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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