Law School Case Brief
Austin v. United States - 127 U.S. App. D.C. 180, 382 F.2d 129 (1967)
28 U.S.C.S. § 2106 confers on a federal appellate court the power to modify a criminal judgment to reduce the conviction to that of a lesser included offense, where the evidence fails to support one element of the crime of which appellant was charged and convicted but sufficiently sustains all the elements of the included offense.
Defendant Bernard Austin was seen in the company of the deceased, Nettie Scott, for some period of time on the night in question. They were drinking together at an afterhours establishment, where Defendant bought deceased a sandwich. At about 4 AM, Defendant left the establishment with the deceased, and drove off in his truck. At approximately 5 AM, two policemen saw Defendant’s truck stopped in a parking bay off the Anacostia Parkway. As they approached to investigate, they noticed some clothing lying on the grass near the truck. At that point, Defendant came up the bank from the river, got in his truck and drove away. Further investigation revealed bloody clothing and a pool of blood in the grassy area near the parking bay. The officers retrieved from the river the mutilated and nearly lifeless body of the deceased, nude except for a piece of clothing around her neck. She died almost immediately. Defendant was apprehended later that morning. Thereafter, Defendant was indicted for murder. The judge charged the jury that "although some time" was required for deliberation, deliberation may be sufficient "though it be of an exceedingly brief duration," and that the time "may be in the nature of hours, minutes or seconds." Defendant requested that the time required for deliberation be stated as "some appreciable period of time," rather than "some period of time" as originally proposed by the judge. The judge declined Defendant’s request. Subsequently, Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder. The jury recommended life imprisonment and Defendant was sentenced accordingly. Defendant challenged the trial court's charge to the jury contending that the evidence at the close of the government's case was insufficient to withstand a motion for acquittal of first-degree murder.
Was the prosecution’s evidence sufficient to convict defendant of first-degree murder?
The Court first noted that unlawful homicides were divided into two classes, murder and manslaughter, depending on whether the killing was with or without malice and afterthought. The Court further noted that Intentional murder was in the first degree if committed in cold blood, and was murder in the second degree if committed on impulse or in the sudden heat of passion. In reviewing the case, the Court held that the government’s evidence did not establish that defendant committed murder in the second-degree. According to the Court, the use of a knife and the violence of the crime did not support an inference of a calmly calculated plan to kill. There was no evidence that defendant cogitated and mulled over the intent to kill. There was no evidence which showed a motive for the crime. Hence, pursuant to 28 U.S.C.S. § 2106, which gave the Court the power to modify erroneous judgments and to authorize reduction to a lesser-included offense when the evidence was insufficient, the Court remanded the case to the district court with directions to enter a judgment of guilty in the second-degree since there was primarily no evidence any premeditation and deliberation on the part of the defendant.
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