State v Thompson, 65 P.3d 420 (Ariz.2003)
Defendant was convicted of first degree murder for killing his wife. On appeal he argued that the states instruction on premeditation was error. He took issue with the part of the states instruction that states that “proof of actual reflection is not required.” The issue was whether premeditation requires proof of actual reflection.
Held: The passage of time is but one factor that can show that the defendant actually reflected. The legislature intended for premeditation, and the reflection that it requires, to mean more than the mere passage of time. The passage of time is not, in and of itself, premeditation.
On May 17, 1999, Thompson shot and killed his wife, Roberta Palma. Several days before the shooting, Palma had filed for divorce, and Thompson had discovered that she was seeing someone else. Just a week before the shooting, Thompson moved out of the couple’s home. As he did so, Thompson threatened Palma that, “[i]f you divorce me, I will kill you.”
Thompson returned to the couple’s neighborhood the morning of May 17. He was seen walking on the sidewalk near the home and his car was spotted in a nearby alley. Two witnesses reported that a man dragged a woman by the hair from the front porch into the home. That same morning, police received and recorded a 9–1–1 call from the house. The tape recorded a woman’s screams and four gunshots. The four gunshots span nearly twenty-seven seconds. Nine seconds elapse between the first shot and the third, and there is an eighteen-second delay between the third shot and the fourth.
Police arrived shortly after the call and found Palma dead from gunshot wounds. An autopsy of her body revealed several fresh abrasions, five non-contact gunshot wounds, and one contact gunshot wound.
At trial, Thompson did not deny killing his wife, but claimed that he did so in the heat of passion, making the killing manslaughter or, at most, second degree murder.
Thompson was charged with premeditated first degree murder.
The court instructed the jury on premeditation as follows:
“Premeditation” means that the defendant acts with either the intention or the knowledge that he will kill another human being, when such intention or knowledge precedes the killing by any length of time to permit reflection. Proof of actual reflection is not required, but an act is not done with premeditation if it is the instant effect of a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.
The jury found Thompson guilty of first degree murder and the judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Thompson appealed, arguing that the definition of premeditation, particularly the clause stating that “[p]roof of actual reflection is not required,” unconstitutionally relieved the State of the burden of proving the element of premeditation.
Whether premeditation requires proof of actual reflection.
The passage of time is but one factor that can show that the defendant actually reflected. The legislature intended for premeditation, and the reflection that it requires, to mean more than the mere passage of time. The passage of time is not, in and of itself, premeditation.
While the phrase “proof of actual reflection is not required” can be interpreted in a way that relieves the state of the burden of proving reflection, such an interpretation would not pass constitutional scrutiny, and the legislature could not have intended such a result. Accordingly, we conclude that the legislature intended to relieve the state of the burden of proving a defendant’s thought processes by direct evidence. It intended for premeditation, and the reflection that it requires, to mean more than the mere passage of time.
We find support for our interpretation in the admonition that “an act is not done with premeditation if it is the instant effect of a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.”
This language distinguishes impulsive killings from planned or deliberated killings and confirms the legislature’s intent that premeditation be more than just a snap decision made in the heat of passion
Our decision today distinguishes the element of premeditation from the evidence that might establish that element. Although the mere passage of time suggests that a defendant premeditated—and the state might be able to convince a jury to make that inference—the passage of time is not, in and of itself, premeditation. To allow the state to establish the element of premeditation by merely proving that sufficient time passed to permit reflection would be to essentially relieve the state of its burden to establish the sole element that distinguishes between first and second degree murder.
Indeed, even those jurists who interpret the amended definition of premeditation to mean only the passage of time to permit reflection seem to assume that a jury will eventually determine that actual reflection occurred before convicting of premeditated murder.
As we noted earlier, only in rare situations will a defendant’s reflection be established by direct evidence such as diary entries or statements to others. But the state may use all the circumstantial evidence at its disposal in a case to prove premeditation. Such evidence might include, among other things, threats made by the defendant to the victim, a pattern of escalating violence between the defendant and the victim, or the acquisition of a weapon by the defendant before the killing. In short, the passage of time is but one factor that can show that the defendant actually reflected. The key is that the evidence, whether direct or circumstantial, must convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant actually reflected.
The court vacated the opinion of the court of appeals but upheld Thompson’s conviction because the court resigned the jury was not instructed that actual reflection can occur as instantaneously as successive thoughts of the mind. And the State presented overwhelming evidence that Thompson actually reflected on his decision to kill his wife including evidence of threats to kill her a week before the murder, the time that elapsed between each gunshot, and the victim’s screams as recorded on the 9–1–1 tape between each gunshot. Based on these evidence, the court concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that the flawed jury instruction and the State’s reliance on that instruction did not affect the jury’s verdict.