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.