Jury instructions

People v. James, 238 Cal. App. 4th 794, 189 Cal. Rptr. 3d 635 (2015), as modified on denial of reh’g (Aug. 12, 2015), review filed (Aug. 24, 2015)

Where a defendant has provided evidence of involuntary intoxication and unconsciousness, he is entitled, upon request, to a jury instruction on the defense of unconsciousness; refusal to provide the requested instruction constitutes prejudicial error

Background: James was charged with aggravated mayhem and assault producing great bodily injury and pled not guilty by reason of insanity. The court-appointed clinical psychologist’s report stated that James had been shot in the head in 1998 and, as a result, had a seizure disorder. Another head trauma occurred in 2011. James had been diagnosed with Mood Disorder, PTSD, and Polysubstance Dependence. In addition, James regularly used cocaine and marijuana, and occasionally used ecstasy, methamphetamine, acid, and mushrooms. The court-appointed psychologist opined that during the offense, James suffered a Psychotic Disorder [not otherwise specified], with psychosis present, and that James “was not capable of knowing or understanding the nature and quality of his act and of distinguishing right from wrong.” Another psychologist’s report chronicled the same history, but concluded that his behavior was more likely the result of drug-induced psychosis or delirium, and that James was not legally insane. In a bifurcated trial, a jury found James guilty, but then found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

Holdings: Finding substantial evidence that James was unconscious within the legal meaning of the defense of unconsciousness when he committed the offenses, the court of appeal reversed, holding that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on that defense.

Notable Points:

It was error to refuse appellant's request to give a jury instruction on the defense of unconsciousness, and appellant was prejudiced: The Court began by stating that evidence raising a reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant was conscious at the time of acting is a complete defense to a criminal charge, and that where a defendant provides evidence of involuntary unconsciousness, “the refusal of a requested instruction on the subject, and its effect as a complete defense if found to have existed, is prejudicial error.” Drawing a link between the voluntary intoxication doctrine and the insanity defense accepted by the jury, the Court stated: “if the jury had concluded that appellant's mental state at the time of the February 19 event was the product of his own voluntary intoxication, it necessarily was required to reject his defense of not guilty by reason of insanity; its contrary finding clearly implies that the jury was not so convinced.”

Unconsciousness caused by voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a general intent crime, and may be raised in any potential retrial: The Court emphasized that unconsciousness is not always a complete defense, and that voluntary intoxication could not be a defense to a general intent crime. It made clear that “the issue of voluntary intoxication may also be raised as an exception to [the unconsciousness] defense, and both may be presented to the jury to decide.”

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 3