Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Impulse killing knocks out habeas claim

Over the last few years, a parade of convicts have petitioned the federal courts for habeas relief on the theory that the homicide could only have been intentional and not deliberately indifferent to human life. The courts recognize the distinction between the two theories of criminal liability, but these habeas actions are hard to win.

The case is Garbutt v. Conway, decided on February 9. The intent to kill/depraved indifference distinction is well-known to law students. What we see in the habeas context is the state court jury convicts the defendant of depraved indifference murder. The defendant then asks the federal court to vacate the conviction because, if he is guilty of anything, it would be intentional murder (for which he was acquitted) and not deliberate indifference (for which he was convicted). The problem with this approach is two-fold. First, federal courts give state courts the benefit of any close constitutional calls (thanks to the 1996 habeas corpus law) and second, juries are able to draw the "right" inferences in these cases at trial.

This case is a good example. Garbutt had a domestic dispute with is girlfriend, Blanchard. He chased her down on the street and confronted Blanchard when she was with her daughter, Tolbert. During the struggle, Garbutt thrust a knife in their direction, hitting the daughter in the chest. Garbutt ran away, and the daughter died from her wounds shortly thereafter. While the jury was free to find that Garbutt intended to kill the daughter, that was not the only reasonable option. It could also find that Garbutt was guilty of recklessness manifesting depraved indifference to human life. Here is how the Court of Appeals (Chin, Hall and Lynch) sees it:

a reasonable a jury could have inferred that Garbutt stabbed Blanchard with the intent to cause her death. But a reasonable jury could equally have found that Garbutt had struck out in blind anger, without specifically intending to cause death, but with an awareness that his conduct could have deadly consequences for either Blanchard or Tolbert or both. The jury could further have inferred from the fact that Garbutt ran away before verifying that Blanchard had died that he had not intended to kill her. Moreover, a reasonable jury could also have found that Garbutt's violent and callous response to Blanchard's refusal to follow his orders, which endangered not only her but also Tolbert, manifested exactly the sort of depraved indifference to human life that New York case law continues to treat as a mental state sufficient for a murder conviction.

No comments: