Manslaughter instructions

A key legal issue in the Menendez brothers retrial was whether the trial court should give the jury manslaughter instructions based on “imperfect self-defense” and “heat of passion.” The trial court conducted an extensive hearing on the issue after the close of evidence:
February 16, 1996: Argument and ruling on manslaughter instructions
February 20, 1996: Further argument and ruling on manslaughter instructions

The trial court’s rulings were based on the testimony of Erik Menendez. Below are excerpts of Erik’s testimony regarding what he claims happened after the brothers supposedly entered the house to tell their parents they were going to the movies and up until the shooting ended:
December 12, 1995: Direct examination – Volume 261 at 43604 – 43640
December 21, 1995: Cross-examination – Volume 268 at 44888 – 44972
January 3, 1996: Cross-examination – Volume 269 at 44982 – 45019 ; (“Instinctively“)

The trial court’s decision not to give the imperfect self-defense instruction was an issue raised on appeal in both state and federal appeal courts. None of the eight appeal judges who have reviewed the judgment of conviction found any error in the trial court’s ruling. Even if it was error not to give the instruction, the failure to do so was a harmless error in any event. As the California Court of Appeal concluded, the factual question posed by the omitted instruction – whether the brothers killed their parents in the sincere, albeit unreasonable, belief that they had to resort to self-defense – was necessarily resolved adversely to the brothers when the jury found them guilty of deliberate, premeditated murder while lying in wait and conspiracy to commit murder.

Furthermore, as the federal district court found, even without the instruction on imperfect self-defense, the instructions actually given to the jury allowed it to consider the brothers’ defense and convict them of some lesser offense if it felt the evidence justified it. Specifically, in addition to first-degree murder, the jury was instructed on the elements of second-degree murder with respect to both victims and on the elements of voluntary manslaughter with respect to Jose. Under California law, second-degree murder is a murder committed without deliberation or premeditation, and voluntary manslaughter is an unlawful killing committed upon a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. Therefore, if the jury had found the evidence supported the defense’s claim that the brothers killed out of fear, it could have adopted one of these other theories of liability and found the brothers guilty of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. That is, even in the absence of an imperfect self-defense instruction, the jury had at its disposal, in the instructions as given, the means for considering, and giving the brothers the benefit of, their defense that they killed out of fear.