Cal. Penal Code § 1181(6) provides that the trial court may grant a new trial when the verdict is contrary to law or evidence, but if the evidence shows the defendant to be not guilty of the degree of the crime of which he was convicted, but guilty of a lesser degree thereof, or of a lesser crime included therein, the court may modify the verdict, finding or judgment accordingly without granting or ordering a new trial.
The jury found defendant guilty of murder of the second degree and found that he was sane at the time of the commission of the offense. The trial judge denied defendant's motion for a new trial on the issue of sanity and ordered that "Defendant's motion for new trial on the case in chief was ruled upon as follows: In lieu of granting a new trial, the verdict of second degree Murder is reduced to Voluntary Manslaughter." The state argued that the evidence was sufficient to justify the implied finding of malice aforethought, that the evidence did not show that defendant was guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and that the trial court erred in reducing the class of crime found by the jury. The state supreme court affirmed the trial court's reduction of defendant's conviction from second degree murder to voluntary manslaughter.
Was the trial court correct to reduce defendant’s conviction from second degree murder to voluntary manslaughter?
From the evidence viewed as a whole, the trial court was amply justified when it concluded that defendant did not possess the state of mind known as malice aforethought, which was an essential element of murder under Cal. Penal Code § 197. It might fairly have been concluded that the evidence on the issue of guilt supported a finding that defendant killed the victim in wild desperation and, therefore, the requisite intent for second degree murder was not present.