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Imperfect Self-Defense (Elmore) Based on Delusions?

Brief Synopsis: The Elmore case is an important case to understand regarding when a jury can be instructed on voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect or unreasonable self-defense for a defendant who had an actual, but unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense.  The following summary is also important to understand for the distinction between a delusion and a misperception.           
Defendant Jason Carl Schuller shot his long-time friend, W.T., nine times in the head and set the body on fire.  Schuller testified at trial, claiming self-defense due to hallucinations and delusions that he was being shot at and attacked with Ninja stars, but was protected by “the light.”

During his testimony, Schuller explained that “the light” was a gift from God that protected him from harm and, when shared with others, would make them better.  He also testified that demons were trying to steal the light to misuse it. 

Schuller testified that when he returned home to California, after having spent time in Nebraska, where he first experienced the Ninja star attackers, he went straight to W.T.’s house.  They then both drank two or three beers and a couple of shots and took a couple hits of concentrated THC, while Schuller told W.T. about his trip. 

At one point, Schuller shared the light with W.T.  W.T. then said to people outside the window, “Yes, it is him.”  Schuller testified that he then took a shower and, while showering, heard five “subtle” gunshots and saw a misty figure.  He subsequently asked W.T. if he had shot at him, but W.T. seemed confused and ignored the question.

Later, W.T. brought out a gun that Schuller owned and had been storing at W.T.’s house.  He told Schuller to take it from him. 

According to Schuller’s testimony, W.T. then asked Schuller to share the light with him again and Schuller did so.  However, Schuller claimed, W.T. did not give it back and looked outside again, smiling, and said, “See, I told you I could take it from him.”

Schuller said W.T. then got a knife from the kitchen and tried to stab him  Schuller then grabbed the gun and asked W.T., “Are you Lucifer?”  According to Schuller, W.T. nodded yes.  W.T. then grabbed for the gun with one hand while raising the knife in his other hand, but Schuller grabbed the gun back and fired one shot at W.T.  W.T. then told Schuller, “You fucked up” and Schuller shot him five more times in the head.
Originally, Schuller had pled not guilty by reason of insanity.  Early in the trial, Schuller’s sister testified that Schuller experienced hallucinations weeks before the murder.

The prosecution offered testimony from a forensic psychologist who interviewed Schuller several times, read the police reports and reviewed Schuller’s jail calls and opined that Schuller was “exaggerating or feigning psychiatric distress.”

The jury then found Schuller guilty of first-degree murder.  He was found legally sane and sentenced to an aggregate term of 50 years to life.
On appeal to the Third Appellate District, Schuller argued that the judge erred in refusing to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect self-defense based on an actual, albeit unreasonable, belief in the need for self-defense that was not entirely delusional.

The Third Appellate District agreed with Schuller, but found the error was harmless, so it affirmed the verdict. 

How the appellate court could reach such a conclusion is important to understand.  The court explained that when there is substantial evidence that defendant killed in imperfect self-defense, the trial court judge must instruct the jury on this theory of voluntary manslaughter.  People v. Elmore (2014) 59 Cal. 4th 121, 134.

In this context, substantial evidence is “evidence from which a jury composed of reasonable [persons] could conclude” that the lesser offense, but not the greater, was committed.  People v. Breverman (1998) 19 Cal. 4th 142, 162. 

“Substantial evidence to support instructions on a lesser included offense may exist even in the face of inconsistencies presented by the defense itself.”  People v. Milbrook (2014) 222 Cal. App. 4th 1122, 1137.  “In deciding whether there is substantial evidence of a lesser offense, court should not evaluate the credibility of witnesses.”  Breverman, supra, at 162.  That is a task for the jury.

Voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect or unreasonable self-defense is available to a defendant who had an actual, but unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense.  Elmore, supra, at 129.  It mitigates murder to manslaughter because malice “cannot coexist with an actual, although mistaken, belief in the need to defend oneself from the victim’s imminent attack.”  Id., at 129-130.

However, “because unreasonable self-defense is a species of mistake of fact . . . it cannot be based on delusion.”  Id. at 136.  “A delusional defendant holds a belief that is divorced from the circumstances.”  Id., at 136-137.

So, in deciding whether substantial evidence supports an instruction on unreasonable self-defense, where must the court draw the line?  The Elmore court explained, “The line between mere misperception and delusion is drawn at the absence of an objective correlate.”  “If a person seeks a stick and thinks it is a snake, that misinterpretation is not delusional.  One who sees a snake, however, when there is nothing at all is delusional.” Id. at 137. 

The appellate court then concluded that the trial court’s refusal to instruct on imperfect self-defense was error.  However, Schuller’s testimony included evidence of both delusion and mistake of fact.  Therefore, the error was not prejudicial to Schuller and was harmless because a more favorable result was not probable given the overwhelming evidence that Schuller was not acting in any form of self-defense at all.

The citation for the Third Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Jason Carl Schuller (3rd App. Dist., 2021) 72 Cal. App. 5th 221, 286 Cal. Rptr. 3d 309.

For more information about self-defense issues, please click on the following articles:
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