Brief Fact Summary.
At her trial for the murder of her son, Helen Wu (Defendant) sought a jury instruction that would have allowed the jury to consider her cultural background as a Chinese immigrant when determining her mental state.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A jury may properly consider evidence of a defendant’s cultural background while deliberating on the mental state required for a murder conviction.
Defendant was an immigrant from China who was involved in a tumultuous relationship with Gary Wu. The pair had a son, Sidney. Defendant strangled Sidney and tried to kill herself in order to care for him in the afterlife. At trial for Sidney’s murder, Defendant claimed that she was unconscious during the killing. The prosecution argued that Defendant killed their son to get revenge on Gary while Defendant argued that she was in an intense emotional upheaval because she believed that Gary’s family would mistreat Sidney because he was born out of wedlock. The defense sought a jury instruction allowing the jury to consider Defendant’s cultural background when deciding her mental state at the time of the crime. The trial court denied the proposed instruction and Defendant was convicted of second-degree murder.
May a jury properly consider a defendant’s cultural background when deliberating on the mental state required for murder?
(Timlin, Acting P.J.) Yes. A jury may properly consider evidence of a defendant’s cultural background while deliberating on the mental state required for a murder conviction. The mental states at issue in a murder prosecution are 1) premeditation, 2) malice aforethought, and 3) specific intent to kill. In general, all relevant evidence is admissible. In this case, evidence of Defendant’s cultural background was relevant on the issue of premeditation. Part of the prosecution’s case was evidence of statements Defendant made in the days preceding the killing that the prosecutor argued indicated a plan to kill Sidney. However, evidence concerning Defendant’s Chinese background would support an alternate theory, that Defendant intended to kill herself and that learning of Sidney’s mistreatment triggered an intense emotional response. This evidence of Defendant’s cultural background could have shown the killing to be the result of heat of passion and not premeditated. The proposed instruction was correct under the law and should have been given. Reversed.
The court also found that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on unconsciousness. Defendant presented evidence that she was in an unconscious state when she strangled her son. In general, unconsciousness negates the mental state required for conviction.