In People v Oros, No. 329046, the Court of Appeals held that the brutality of a murder is not sufficient evidence to prove premeditation in a first-degree premeditated murder charge. Furthermore, the court vacated a second count of first-degree murder on a felony-murder theory because the jury instructions erroneously allowed for a conviction based on the crime of using false pretenses to defraud.
The case arose out of a fire at the victim’s apartment complex and subsequent discovery of the victim’s body. An autopsy revealed that the victim had died from multiple stab wounds before the fire started. The police investigation indicated that the defendant had spent the day of the fire knocking on the doors of other apartment residents, and using a fabricated story to solicit money. When the officers tracked the defendant at his apartment in Battle Creek, Michigan, he unsuccessfully attempted to escape.
Although the defendant did not testify at trial, during an interrogation following his arrest, he admitted that he entered the victim’s apartment and used her phone. Moreover, he explained that the victim attacked him with a knife without motive, a struggle ensued, and he gained control of the knife and stabbed her 29 times. At trial, the jury rejected defendant’s self-defense and mitigation arguments and found him guilty of both first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder. Defendant appealed.
On appeal, defendant first argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of a premeditated murder. Examining the plain language of the first-degree murder statute and using other tools of statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeals determined that the defendant’s first-degree premeditated murder conviction should be reduced to second-degree murder. The court noted that the Legislature defined first-degree murder as “willful, deliberate and premeditated killing,” and concluded that the prosecutor had to prove each element separately, including premeditation, in order to sustain a first-degree murder conviction. Premeditation and deliberation may be established through: (1) evidence of the parties’ prior relationship, (2) the defendant’s actions before the killing, (3) the circumstances surrounding the killing itself, and (4) the defendant’s conduct after the killing. In defendant’s case, the prosecutor failed to establish premeditation and deliberation through any of the four factors. Specifically, the Court of Appeals emphasized that evidence of the third factor, the circumstances surrounding the killing itself, did not support a finding of premeditative intent because such intent cannot develop between successive stab blows, regardless of the savage and senseless nature of the murder. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reduced the defendant’s conviction to second-degree murder.
Second, the defendant argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of his second count of first-degree murder on a felony-murder theory. At trial, the prosecution insisted that the murder occurred during either of two crimes: larceny or use of false pretenses to defraud. The jury was instructed to consider either using false pretenses or larceny as the basis for the conviction, but the jury verdict form did not require the jury to specify which crime formed the basis for the felony murder conviction. The Court of Appeals held that the instruction was erroneous because using false pretenses cannot form the basis for a felony murder conviction. Further, the crime of using false pretenses does not constitute a larceny for felony murder purposes. Therefore, the defendant was entitled to a reversal of the conviction and a new trial because it was unclear which theory of guilt the jury relied on and the theory of false pretenses was legally insufficient to sustain a conviction. In addition, although the defendant’s counsel agreed to the instruction, the error represented a basic right that could only be waived with defendant’s full knowledge express consent, which defendant did not provide in this case
Therefore, the Court of Appeals reduced defendant’s first-degree premeditated murder conviction to second-degree murder and vacated defendant’s conviction of first-degree felony murder and remanded the case to allow for a new trial.