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State v. Bingham

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant appealed a conviction of first-degree murder.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    For purposes of a first-degree murder conviction, a finding of premeditation may not be based solely on the passage of a certain amount of time.

    Facts.

    One night, Bingham (Defendant) and Leslie Cook got off a bus together. The two did not know each other previously. They visited various places, and three days later, Cook’s body was found in a field near where the two had last been seen together. Defendant was charged with aggravated first-degree murder, an element of which is premeditation. Premeditation is defined as “the deliberate formation of and reflection upon the intent to take a human life.” At trial, the medical examiner explained that the cause of death was manual strangulation, which had been accomplished by applying pressure to Cook’s windpipe for three to five minutes. Cook also had bruises and bite marks on her body. The prosecutor’s theory was that Defendant started the act of sexual intercourse while Cook was alive and strangled her during the act. The prosecutor also told the jury that the murder could be considered premeditated if Defendant had formed the intent to kill when he began to strangle Cook and thought about that intent for the three to five minutes it took her to stop breathing. The jury found Defendant guilty of first-degree murder. Defendant appealed, arguing that a specific amount of time alone is not enough, by itself, to establish premeditation.

    Issue.

    Whether, for purposes of a first-degree murder conviction, a finding of premeditation may be based solely on the passage of a certain amount of time.

    Held.

    No. Defendant conviction is reversed  and he should be sentenced for second-degree murder. For purposes of a first-degree murder conviction, a finding of premeditation may not be based solely on the passage of a certain amount of time.

    Dissent.

    (Callow, J.): The first-degree murder conviction should stand. The majority incorrectly suggests that premeditation must occur before the start of the particular action that causes death. Here, the jury could have found that Cook’s death, resulting from three to five minutes of pressure on her windpipe, was not caused by an impulsive act, but by a choice to kill her and conceal her rape.

    Discussion.

    The passage of a certain amount of time during which a defendant could have deliberated about killing another does not mean that the element of premeditation has been satisfied. If a finding of premeditation could be based solely on the fact that an action takes a particular amount of time, the distinction between first- and second-degree murder would be destroyed. Just because the defendant has the chance to deliberate, this does not mean he actually did deliberate. If the existence of this time factor were enough to establish premeditation, any manner of homicide that took more than a mere moment to complete could form the basis for a first-degree murder conviction without any further evidence of thought or contemplation. In this case, that Defendant applied pressure to Cook’s windpipe does not necessarily reflect a decision to kill her, but could also evidence an attempt to quiet her. In addition, it is not obvious that a person has the definite ability to deliberate or think through his actions while engaged in sexual activity. While available evidence does clearly establish that there was an intentional and horrifying murder, the facts presented could support a second-degree murder charge for a killing committed in the heat of passion or something similar. Manual strangulation, accomplished over a time period of three to five minutes, alone, is not enough to support a conclusion of premeditation. 


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