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. "So we broke with England for the right to "off" our preborn progeny at will, and allow the processing plant doing the dirty deeds (dirt cheap) to profit on the marketing of those "products of conception." I was completely maleducated on our nation's founding, it would seem. (But I know the ACLU is hard at work to remedy that, too.)" Well, you know, we're just following in the footsteps of our founders who raped women, raped slaves, raped children, maimed immigrants, sold children, stole property, broke promises, broke apart families, killed natives... You know, good God fearing down home Christian folk! :/

  2. Who gives a rats behind about all the fluffy ranking nonsense. What students having to pay off debt need to know is that all schools aren't created equal and students from many schools don't have a snowball's chance of getting a decent paying job straight out of law school. Their lowly ranked lawschool won't tell them that though. When schools start honestly (accurately) reporting *those numbers, things will get interesting real quick, and the looks on student's faces will be priceless!

  3. Whilst it may be true that Judges and Justices enjoy such freedom of time and effort, it certainly does not hold true for the average working person. To say that one must 1) take a day or a half day off work every 3 months, 2) gather a list of information including recent photographs, and 3) set up a time that is convenient for the local sheriff or other such office to complete the registry is more than a bit near-sighted. This may be procedural, and hence, in the near-sighted minds of the court, not 'punishment,' but it is in fact 'punishment.' The local sheriffs probably feel a little punished too by the overwork. Registries serve to punish the offender whilst simultaneously providing the public at large with a false sense of security. The false sense of security is dangerous to the public who may not exercise due diligence by thinking there are no offenders in their locale. In fact, the registry only informs them of those who have been convicted.

  4. Unfortunately, the court doesn't understand the difference between ebidta and adjusted ebidta as they clearly got the ruling wrong based on their misunderstanding

  5. A common refrain in the comments on this website comes from people who cannot locate attorneys willing put justice over retainers. At the same time the judiciary threatens to make pro bono work mandatory, seemingly noting the same concern. But what happens to attorneys who have the chumptzah to threatened the legal status quo in Indiana? Ask Gary Welch, ask Paul Ogden, ask me. Speak truth to power, suffer horrendously accordingly. No wonder Hoosier attorneys who want to keep in good graces merely chase the dollars ... the powers that be have no concerns as to those who are ever for sale to the highest bidder ... for those even willing to compromise for $$$ never allow either justice or constitutionality to cause them to stand up to injustice or unconstitutionality. And the bad apples in the Hoosier barrel, like this one, just keep rotting.

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