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.