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Unreasonable Minds


The DSM defines a delusion as a false belief based on an incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly held.  If a defendant commits a homicide based on a delusion, can he avail himself of the defense of imperfect self-defense?  As Kent mentioned on Wednesday, the California Supreme Court recently held that the answer is "no" in the case of People v. Elmore.  The court bases it conclusion largely on the idea that an imperfect self-defense requires that a person's unreasonable beliefs must be caused by objective circumstances that he misperceives negligently and that delusional self-defense is properly considered in the realm of the insanity defense.  My sense is that this is mistaken and I want to show why.

The facts of Elmore are undisputed.   Charles Elmore had a long a history of severe mental illness.  He had been hospitalized repeatedly for psychosis and at the time of the crime was living at a rehabilitation center.  On the morning of the crime, he became agitated and began to behave bizarrely.  Later that day he crossed paths with Ella Suggs, a 53 year old weekend shopper who was waiting for a bus.  Elmore attacked Suggs out of the blue, grabbed her necklace, and then stabbed her once in the chest, which resulted in her death.


At trial, defendant Elmore was unable to give much of an account for why he had attacked Suggs but a psychiatrist testified that Elmore was psychotic at the time and therefore operating under a delusion.  Elmore's attorney requested jury instructions for both unreasonable self-defense and mistake of fact, which were both denied by the trial court.  Elmore was convicted of murder in the first degree and appealed.  


California provides the imperfect self-defense in cases where a defendant unreasonably believes that he is justified in the killing of another.  Since the crime is unjustified based on the unreasonableness of the defendant's beliefs, imperfect self-defense is evidence of a lack of malice, and a defendant is guilty of voluntary homicide.  The question posed in Elmore is whether an unreasonable belief that arises due to mental illness can satisfy for imperfect self-defense.    


The California Supreme Court holds that based both on common law and statute, a delusional belief cannot form an imperfect self-defense.   The court draws the line between mistakes of fact "caused by the circumstances" (p.10) and those premised on mental disorder because the latter are "cognitive defects alone."  But, of course, an agent who acts unreasonably regardless of mental illness does so based on faulty reasoning and honestly believes reality is different.  For instance, if a husky and muscular man fears for his life because a diminutive colleague comes at him with his fists and he responds with deadly physical force, that action is unreasonable self-defense.   He is under no hallucination regarding his opponent's size, but his belief about the danger posed to him is faulty no matter how firm his resolve regarding it may be. 


The court in Elmore goes to great pains to suggest that a non-mentally ill defendant is different than the deluded one because the former is based on a "negligent perception of facts"  but the court appears to miss the circularity of perception and belief moments later in its analysis when it puts forth this illustration:


A delusional defendant holds a belief that is divorced from the circumstances. The line between mere misperception and delusion is drawn at the absence of an objective correlate. A person who sees a stick and thinks it is a snake is mistaken, but that misinterpretation is not delusional. One who sees a snake where there is nothing snakelike, however, is deluded.


The person who sees the snake when nothing is there is having a hallucination, which is a misperception of reality based on mental illness.  Due to these false perceptions, an agent will inevitably form false beliefs.  If you see a tiger about to attack you, you may question that belief, but your actions in the moment evince your belief that the tiger is real, whether in reality he is not.  Just as so, the large man who kills the smaller is unreasonable not because he failed to consider his relative size but because his belief about the danger posed by his foe is objectively unreasonable.   People act based on beliefs and reasons, regardless of whether those beliefs are formed by accurate or false perceptions.   


Whether by a false belief about the circumstances or a delusion, a person who unreasonably believes that she must use deadly physical force to repel a danger lacks malice for the same reason and therefore cannot be guilty of murder.  There is no evil intent; no malicious heart or plan.  The court holds that a delusional defendant in a self-defense case is "quintessentially a claim of insanity under the M'Naghten standard of inability to distinguish right from wrong" (p. 17).  But the claim being made by a defendant in such a case is not that he was unable to know that his conduct was legally or morally wrong, but that the facts were different than what he believed.  A claim of legal insanity is one of non-responsibility as the retributive arm of the criminal punishment is deemed inappropriate for someone who did not know right from wrong at the time of the crime or know the nature and quality of his actions.  In Elmore the defendant knew he was stabbing the victim and, in all likelihood, knew the great harm caused by his actions.  After all, that is why people engage in self-defense.  But he claimed he was honestly mistaken about the reasonableness of his actions based on circumstances of reality as he perceived them and therefore lacked the mens rea necessary for the charge of murder.

One last note about the Elmore decision.  The court highlights California Penal Code ยง28, which allows defendants to proffer mental health evidence to prove California's reformed mens rea version of diminished capacity (known as diminished actuality).  In a pretty unconvincing paragraph, the court holds that this provision is inapplicable to Elmore because mental incapacity is essentially an insanity claim.  Of course, the delusional self-defense claim is not one of incapacity nor could it be given the reformed diminished actuality standard; it is simply the assertion that the prosecution cannot prove all of the elements of the offense and the defendant is guilty of a lesser crime.  As the court held long ago there is "no degree of insanity which may be established to affect the degree of crime" (People v. Cordova, 14 Cal.2d 308,311 (1939).   But since the rule now seems to be that delusional self-defense is not a valid claim in California, what type of mental health evidence would be relevant in an imperfect self-defense case?  If the line is false beliefs, that move effectively removes any viable mental health evidence.  Even in the case of People v. Wells, which the court cites approvingly, where a defendant advanced an imperfect self-defense claim based on mental infirmity that left him abnormally reactive to external stimulus, the mistake of fact must be based on a false belief.  If it is (implausibly so) an uncontrolled impulse, then it is not a voluntary action and no crime whatsoever has occurred. 

Culpable actions require beliefs, however brief or unreasonable, and punishment is justified for delusional defendants who know that their actions are wrong, but genuinely albeit unreasonably believe that they are justified.  But the crime is manslaughter not murder.  


Well, I would disagree with you. The crime was First degree murder, but it was knocked down to second degree. He was fully aware of his actions and that was apparent in court and with the statements made by him to the nurse "give me something to make me crazy."

He did not have a long standing history of mental illness. Each instance where mental stability became a question, he was committing a crime. He didn't have much to say at the trial which is different than not being able to recall the facts.

I am the daughter of the victim Ella Suggs.

First, lsuggslcsw, I am truly sorry for your loss.

Whether the jury would have believed that Elmore's unreasonable belief was genuine is an open question and one that should have been assessed by the jury. I only have access to the information in the opinion about the history of defendant Elmore. It's entirely possible that his mental illness was not a factor in this crime. But again, that is something that the jury should have decided.

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