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Where evidence of involuntary unconsciousness has been produced in a homicide prosecution, the refusal of a requested instruction on the subject, and its effect as a complete defense if found to have existed, is prejudicial error. The fact, if it appears, that such evidence does not inspire belief does not authorize the failure to instruct. However incredible the testimony of a defendant may be he is entitled to an instruction based upon the hypothesis that it is entirely true.
In a nighttime affray involving two officers in patrol cars and two occupants of a private car stopped for questioning, defendant Huey P. Newton and one officer were shot and wounded and the other officer was shot to death. Defendant was charged with murder, with assault with a deadly weapon on the other officer, with kidnaping and with a conviction of a prior felonious assault. At trial, after the People rested its case, defendant's motion for acquittal on the assault charged was granted after the alleged victim refused to testify. The evidence on the affray was confusing as to who had shot whom and when, but some of it supported the inference that defendant had been shot in the abdomen before doing any firing himself, and that he had been in a state of unconsciousness when the deceased officer was shot. Jury instructions on the defense of unconsciousness and of diminished capacity were requested; the latter was given but the former was withdrawn. The jury found defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, acquitted him on the assault charge, and found the charge of conviction of the prior felonious assault to be true. Defendant challenged his conviction.
Could defendant’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter stand, notwithstanding defendant’s involuntary, unconscious state?
The court reversed the conviction, holding that the trial court committed reversible error when it failed to instruct the jury as to defendant's involuntary, unconscious state. Involuntary unconsciousness provided a complete defense to a particular crime because it negated capacity to commit any crime. Defendant's evidence warranted an instruction concerning unconsciousness. The fact that such evidence might not have been wholly believable was no excuse for a failure to instruct. The error to instruct was prejudicial per se because it deprived defendant of his constitutional right to have the jury determine all material issues presented by evidence. Despite defendant's failure to request an instruction, the trial court was under a duty to instruct anyway where evidence existed concerning unconsciousness.