Under Michigan state law, being guilty of a crime means you have done an action that the Michigan Legislature has declared criminal and punishable by incarceration, fine, or both. The very nature of criminal law means that in order for you to be guilty of a crime, your actions must fit the conduct declared illegal by the Legislature. That means a large part of criminal defense work involves finding how the facts of the case don’t measure up to what the Legislature has declared criminal.
In legal terms we call that finding the weak element of the crime. Crimes are made up of elements (things the prosecution must prove in order to convict you of that crime). If a crime is made up of four elements, all four have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, otherwise you are not guilty of that crime! There may be a lesser offense you are guilty of and sometimes that is useful for plea bargaining.
The Court of Appeals recently demonstrated the importance of this concept in the case People v Mitchell, where Bradford Scott Mitchell’s conviction of second degree murder and carrying a weapon with unlawful intent were reversed by the Court of Appeals.
The tragic events surrounding this case arose out of a $5 debt. It’s sad but true. Apparently, Mr. Mitchell was owed $5 by the victim in this case and lots of witnesses testified as to Mr. Mitchell’s consistent harassment of the victim over the debt. On January 16, 2011, the victim was found dead in his apartment with wounds consistent with being beat by a baseball bat and stabbed four times. He had a fractured skull and died what could only be described as a horrifying death.
Eventually police interviewed Mr. Mitchell, who actually admitted to being in an altercation with the victim but only after he had been assaulted by the victim first. Mr. Mitchell was arrested and tried on open murder charges and carrying a weapon with unlawful intent. The jury convicted him of second degree murder (intent to kill, but no premeditation). The defense requested that the jury instruct the jury on a voluntary manslaughter charge, which would have required the jury to find that Mr. Mitchell was provoked and acted in self-defense. The judge refused to give such an instruction to the jury, resulting in the second-degree murder conviction.
In order to prove murder, the prosecution has to prove malice. If the facts are such that the killing is done out of an act of passion rather than reason, there is no malice and you cannot find a person guilty of murder. Accordingly, Michigan law requires a judge to instruct a jury on voluntary manslaughter whenever the instruction is supported by a rational view of the evidence. To prove manslaughter, the prosecution must prove that the defendant killed in the heat of passion, the passion was caused by adequate provocation, and there was not a lapse of time during which a reasonable person could control his passions.
So, if Mr. Mitchell presented enough evidence that a jury could have concluded that the killing was done in the heat of passion because he was provoked and didn’t have enough time to cool down, then the jury should have been given a chance to find him guilty only of voluntary manslaughter. The Court of Appeals reviewed the trial evidence and believed that Mr. Mitchell had submitted enough evidence for a jury to conclude he acted out of provocation (self-defense) and reversed the conviction, ordering a new trial to include instructions on voluntary manslaughter. The evidence that showed provocation was that the victim had told other witnesses that he was going to beat Mr. Mitchell up if Mr. Mitchell continued to harass him about the debt.
The jury was able to hear Mr. Mitchell’s statement to the police and see his signed statement. Both pieces of evidence created a story line that went like this: Mr. Mitchell went to the victim’s house about the debt and was immediately confronted with the victim swinging a baseball bat at him. Mr. Mitchell was able to get the baseball bat away from the victim, but only after being struck three or four times in the head. Mr. Mitchell admitted that he then struck the victim three times with the baseball bat. Police testified that Mr. Mitchell did indeed have signs of being in a physical altercation, which corroborated his story.
Not only that, but it was clear from the evidence that the weapon used, the baseball bat, was always the victim’s and had been kept inside of his home. Therefore, the charge of carrying a weapon with lawful intent, could not have resulted in a conviction because the element of “goes armed” could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the weapon was already at the place of the crime, Mr. Mitchell did not commit the crime of carrying a weapon with unlawful intent, because he showed up at the victim’s house unarmed. The facts did not sustain the element of goes armed found in the statute passed by the Legislature.