Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, July 30, 2002


Page 3


Duress From Fear for Own Life No Defense to Murder, S.C. Rules


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Duress is not a defense to murder, nor does it reduce the crime to manslaughter, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The high court unanimously affirmed Robert N. Anderson’s conviction for the murder of Margaret Armstrong, with six justices agreeing that duress is never a defense to any murder charge in California.

Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote separately, arguing that duress is a defense to a charge of non-capital murder, but agreeing that the conviction should be affirmed because there was no substantial evidence of duress in Anderson’s case.

 Justice Ming Chin wrote for the court, citing Blackstone’s comment that one who has been “violently assaulted, and hath no other possible means of escaping death, but by killing an innocent person…ought rather to die himself than escape by the murder of an innocent,” that is, of a person who did not cause the duress.

The justice wrote:

“We conclude that, as in Blackstone’s England, so today in California: fear for one’s own life does not justify killing an innocent person. Duress is not a defense to murder. We also conclude that duress cannot reduce murder to manslaughter. Although one may debate whether a killing under duress should be manslaughter rather than murder, if a new form of manslaughter is to be created, the Legislature, not this court, should do it.”

Armstrong was killed in a camp area near Eureka, where Anderson and others apparently suspected her of molesting two girls who lived in the camp. Ron Kiern, the father of one of the girls, pled guilty to second degree murder and testified against Anderson.

Witnesses testified that Anderson picked up a large rock and handed it to Kiern, who struck her. Kiern testified that Anderson said Armstrong had to die and dropped a small boulder onto her head.

Anderson said he had tried to talk Kiern out of killing the victim, but that Kiern continually hit Armstrong over the head. He said he tried to talk Kiern into taking her to a hospital, but Kiern refused.

Anderson admitted handing Kiern the rock, but said he did so only Kiern threatened to beat him up. He said he was afraid because Kiern was bigger and he was “not in shape” to fight.

Humboldt Superior Court Judge John Feeney rejected the defense request for a jury instruction on duress. The jury found Anderson guilty of first degree murder and kidnapping.

The First District Court of Appeal affirmed, saying duress is not a defense to first degree murder.

Chin, writing yesterday for the high court, agreed.

Duress, he explained, is a defense to most crimes because the violation of criminal law is considered a lesser evil than the harm threatened by the other person. This analysis does not apply in the case of murder, the justice said, because “[t]he law should require people to choose to resist rather than kill an innocent person.”

Chin rejected the argument that Penal Code Sec. 26 modifies the common law rule. The section, enacted in 1872, provides in part that no crime is committed by “[p]ersons (unless the crime be punishable with death) who committed the act or made the omission charged under threats of menaces sufficient to show that they had reasonable cause to and did believe their lives would be endangered if they refused.”

Anderson’s attorney argued that under that statute, duress is a defense to any murder charge that does not involve special circumstances and thus cannot result in a death sentence.

Chin, however, noted that the “unless the crime be punishable with death” language goes back to 1850, when all murder was punishable with death, and was on the books in 1856, when the Legislature divided the crime into first degree murder, which was punishable by death, and second degree murder, which was not.

Since duress was not a defense to any murder under the early law, and since there is no history to suggest that the Legislature chose at some point to make it a defense to some murders, the common law still prevails, Chin said.

The argument that the current death penalty law intended to create such an exception doesn’t make sense, he added.

“Defendant’s position would mean that constitutional death penalty jurisprudence would control the substantive law of duress, something we doubt the Legislature intended,” Chin wrote. “Even more anomalously, defendant’s position would mean that when the Legislature created special circumstances to give California a valid death penalty law, it simultaneously expanded the circumstances in which someone may kill an innocent person.”

The justice went on to reject the contention that duress negates malice and should at least reduce the offense from murder to manslaughter. While this is now the law in some states, he explained, there is no case law or statute to support such a position in California.

“We recognize that policy arguments can be made that a killing out of fear for one’s own life, although not justified, should be a crime less than the same killing without such fear,” he explained. “On the other hand, because duress can often arise in a criminal gang context, the Legislature might be reluctant to do anything to reduce the current law’s deterrent effect on gang violence. These policy questions are for the Legislature, not a court, to decide.”

Chin agreed that duress may negate premeditation, so that the crime would be second degree murder rather than first. But there was no error by the trial judge in that regard, the justice reasoned, since the jury received a correct instruction that the defendant was not guilty of first degree murder if “a sudden heat of passion or other condition precluding the idea of deliberation” would not be premeditated first degree murder.

Kennard, in her separate opinion, argued that the statutory reference to crimes “punishable with death” must be read, as in other contexts, “as excluding all noncapital forms of murder.” Thus, she argued, duress should be a defense to murder unless the special circumstances enumerated in the death penalty law apply.

The case is People v. Anderson, 02 S.O.S. 3877.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company