State v. Guthrie
194 W.Va. 657, 461 S.E.2d 163 (1995)
- Guthrie had some psychiatric problems including panic attacks. He was at work one day when some of the other co-workers were making fun of him. Guthrie pulled out a knife and stabbed one of them in the neck.
- The other co-workers testified that they weren’t teasing Guthrie too badly, and that there was no warning, Guthrie just snapped.
- Even Guthrie testified that he could not believe how he had overreacted.
- Guthrie was arrested and charged with murder.
- The Trial Court found Guthrie guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison. He appealed.
- Under West Virginia law, first-degree murder is a “willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder.”
- The jury was instructed that “what is meant by the language of willful, deliberate, and premeditated is that the killing be intentional,” and “in order to constitute a premeditated murder and intent to kill need exist only for an instant.”
- Guthrie argued that the killing was not premeditated, and therefore he should only be guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a lesser penalty.
- The West Virginia Supreme Court overturned the conviction and remanded for a new trial.
- The West Virginia Supreme Court found that the jury instructions were incorrect because they nullified the distinction between first-degree murder and second-degree murder.
- The Court suggested that to sustain a first-degree murder charge, there must be some evidence that the defendant considered and weighed his decision to kill. On the other hand, second-degree murder is for killings of a spontaneous and nonreflective nature.
- Basically, in order to sustain a first-degree murder charge, there must have been an opportunity for some reflection on the intention to kill after it is formed.
- That opportunity can be a very short time period though, just long enough to ‘permit reflection.”
- Compare to Commonwealth v. Carroll (A.2d 911 (1963)), which said that as long as you act with a deliberate intent to kill someone, that can count as premeditation, even you don’t plan the murder and think about it for a while.