Court: No sudden heat, no voluntary manslaughter

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
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.

Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues