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Law School Case Brief

People v. Anderson - 28 Cal. 4th 767, 122 Cal. Rptr. 2d 587, 50 P.3d 368 (2002)


At common law, duress is no defense to killing an innocent person, i.e., the person that did not cause the duress. The basic rationale behind allowing the defense or duress for other crimes is that, for reasons of social policy, it is better that the defendant, faced with a choice of evils, choose to do the lesser evil--violate the criminal law--in order to avoid the greater evil threatened by the other person. This rationale, however, is strained when a defendant is confronted with taking the life of an innocent third person in the face of a threat on his own life.


Defendant Robert Neal Anderson was charged with kidnapping and murdering the victim in a camp area. Anderson and others apparently suspected the victim of molesting two girls who resided in the camp. Ron Kiern, the father of one of the girls, pleaded guilty to the victim's second-degree murder and testified at Anderson's trial in in California state court. At trial, the evidence showed that Anderson was present when the victim was killed and that he participated to some degree in the murder. Anderson claimed, however, that Kiern threatened him with violence if he did not help Kiern kill the victim. On that basis, Anderson requested that the trial court instruct the jury on the defense of duress. The trial court refused the proffered instruction, and the jury convicted Anderson of first-degree murder. The court of appeal affirmed. The state supreme court granted review.


Was the defense of duress applicable to murder?




The state supreme court held that under Cal. Pen. Code, § 26, the defense of duress did not apply to a "crime punishable by death." According to the court, although Anderson was not subject to the death penalty, the phrase "crime punishable by death" referred to the punishment as it existed in 1872 when Cal. Pen. Code, § 26 was enacted, and all first-degree murder was punishable by death. Thus, the court ruled, duress was no defense to any murder, and therefore the trial court did not err in refusing Anderson's requested instruction on the defense of duress.

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