Fisher v. United States, No. 122

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtREED
Citation66 S.Ct. 1318,328 U.S. 463,90 L.Ed. 1382,166 A.L.R. 1176
PartiesFISHER v. UNITED STATES
Decision Date10 June 1946
Docket NumberNo. 122

328 U.S. 463
66 S.Ct. 1318
90 L.Ed. 1382
FISHER

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 122.
Argued Dec. 5, 1945.
Decided June 10, 1946.
Rehearing Denied Oct. 14, 1946.

See 67 S.Ct. 24.

Mr. Charles H. Houston, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Charles B. Murray, of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Page 464

Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This writ of certiorari brings here for review the sentence of death imposed upon petitioner by the District Court of the United States for the District of Columbia after a verdict of guilty on the first count of an indictment which charged petitioner with killing by choking and strangling Catherine Cooper Reardon, with deliberate and premeditated malice. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the judgment and sentence of the District Court. 149 F.2d 28.

The errors presented by the petition for certiorari and urged at our bar were, in substance, that the trial court refused to instruct the jurors that they should consider the evidence of the accused's psychopathic aggressive tendencies, low m otional response and borderline mental deficiency to determine whether he was guilty of murder in the first or in the second degree. The aggregate of these factors admittedly was not enough to support a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity.1 Deliberation and

Page 465

premeditation are necessary elements of first degree murder.

Considerations as to the exercise of authority by this Court over the courts of the District of Columbia in the interpretation of local criminal statutes induced us to grant the writ in view of the issue presented. Judicial Code, Section 240(a), 28 U.S.C.A. § 347(a).

The homicide took place in the library building on the grounds of the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Washington, D.C., between eight and nine o'clock, a.m., on March 1, 1944. The victim was the librarian. She had complained to the verger a few days before about petitioner's care of the premises. The petitioner was the janitor. The verger had told him of the complaint. Miss Reardon and Fisher were alone in the library at the time of the homicide. The petitioner testified that Miss Reardon was killed by him immediately following insulting words from her over his care of the premises. After slapping her impulsively, petitioner ran up a flight of steps to reach an exit on a higher level but turned back down, after seizing a convenient stick of firewood, to stop her screaming. He struck her with the stick and when it broke choked her to silence. He then dragged her to a lavatory and left the body to clean up some spots of blood on the floor outside. While Fisher was doing this cleaning up, the victim 'started hollering again.' Fisher then took out his knife and stuck her in the throat. She was silent. After that he dragged her body down into an adjoining pump pit, where it was found the next morning. The above facts made up petitioner's story to the jury of the killing.

It may or may not have been accepted as a whole by the jury. Other evidence furnishes facts which may have led the jury to disbelieve some of the details of accused's version of the tragedy. In his original confession, the

Page 466

accused made no reference to Miss Reardon's use of insulting words. In his written confession, they were mentioned. In his testimony their effect upon him was amplified. There are minor variations between Fisher's written confession and his testimony. In the written confession Fisher admitted that his main reason for assaulting Miss Reardon was because she reported him for not cleaning the library floor. The Deputy Coroner said the knife wound was not deep, 'just went through the skin.'

The effort of the defense is to show that the murder was not deliberate and premeditated; that it was not first but second degree murder. A reading of petitioner's own testimony, summarized above, shows clearly to us that there was sufficient evidence to support a verdict of murder in the first degree, ifp etitioner was a normal man in his mental and emotional characteristics. Cf. Bostic v. United States, 68 App.D.C. 167, 94 F.2d 636, 638. But the defense takes the position that the petitioner is fairly entitled to be judged as to deliberation and premeditation, not by a theoretical normality but by his own personal traits. In view of the status of the defense of partial responsibility in the District and the nation no contention is or could be made of the denial of due process. It is the contention of the defense that the mental and emotional qualities of petitioner were of such a level at the time of the crime that he was incapable of deliberation and premeditation although he was then sane in the usual legal sense. He knew right from wrong. See The M'Naghten Rules, 10 C. and F. 200, 210. His will was capable of controlling his impulses. Smith v. United States, 59 App.D.C. 144, 36 F.2d 548, 70 A.L.R. 654. Testimony of psychiatrists to support petitioner's contention was introduced. An instruction charging the jury to consider the personality of the petitioner in determining intent, premeditation and deliberation was sought and refused.

Page 467

From the evidence of the psychiatrists for the defense, the jury might have concluded the petitioner was mentally somewhat below the average with minor stigmata of mental subnormalcy. An expert testified that he was a psychopathic personality2 of a predominantly aggressive type. There was evidence that petitioner was unable by reason of a deranged mental condition to resist the impulse to kill Miss Reardon. All evidence offered by the defense was accepted by the trial court. The prosecution had competent evidence that petitioner was capable of understanding the nature and quality of his acts. Instructions in the usual form were given by the court submitting to the jury the issues of insanity, irresistible impulse, malice, deliberation and premeditation. Under these instructions, set out below, the jury could have determined from the evidence that the homicide was not the result of premeditation and deliberation.3

Although no objection as to the form of these instructions is urged here by counsel for petitioner, this Court in a criminal case may notice material error within its power

Page 468

to correct even though that error is not specifically challenged and certainly should do so, even in cases from the District of Columbia, where life is at stake. Brasfield v. United States, 272 U.S. 448, 47 S.Ct. 135, 71 L.Ed. 345; compare Rules 54(a)(1), 59, 52(b), Rules of Criminal Procedure. It is suggested

Page 469

by a dissent that these instructions, just quoted in note 3, did not bring sharply and vividly to the jury's mind' the issue of premeditation; that they 'consisted of threadbare generalities, a jumble of empty abstractions.' We think the contention advanced is that the district judge should

Page 470

have specifically referred to the words of insult or have elaborated upon the details of the evidence in his charge with respect to premeditation. With such a requirement for instructions we do not agree. The evidence furnishes the factual basis for a juy § conclusion as to guilt and its degree, guided by the instructions of the court as to the law.4 Premeditation and deliberation were defined carefully by the instructions. The contention of the accused that there was no deliberation or premeditation was called distinctly to the jury's attention. The necessary time element was emphasized and the jury was told that premeditation required a preconceived design to kill, a 'second thought.' With the evidence and the law before them the jury reached its verdict. The instructions, we think, were clear, definite, understandable and applicable to the facts developed by the testimony. We see no error in them.

The error claimed by the petitioner is limited to the refusal of one instruction. The jury might not have reached the result it did if the theory of partial responsibility5 for his acts which the petitioner urges had been submitted. Petitioner sought an instruction from the trial court which would permit the jury to weigh the evidence of his mental deficiencies, which were short of insanity in the legal sense, in determining the fact of and the accused's capacity for premeditation and deliberation.6

Page 471

The appellate court approved the refusal upon the alternate ground that an accused is not entitled to an instruction upon petitioner's theory.7 This has long been the law of the District of Columbia.8 This is made abundantly clear by United States v. Lee, 4 Mackey 489, 495, 54 Am.Rep. 293. This also was a murder case in which there was evidence of mental defects which did not amount to insanity. An instruction was asked and denied in the language copied in the margin.9

Page 472

It is suggested that the Lee case was decided when murder under the District law was not divided into degrees and that therefore it was not proper to instruct as to the accused's mental capacity to premeditate and deliberate while now it would be. We do not agree. The separation of the crime of murder into the present two degrees by the code of law for the District of Columbia, March 3, 1901, 31 Stat. 1189, 1321, is not significant in analyzing the necessity for the proposed submission of the evidence concerning petitioner's mental and emotional characteristics to the jury by specific instruction. The reason for the change, doubtless, lay in the wide range of atrocity with which the crime of murder might be committed so that Congress deemed it desirable to establish grades of punishment. Cf. Davis v. People of Territory of Utah, 151 U.S. 262, 267, 270, 14 S.Ct. 328, 329, 331, 38 L.Ed. 153. Homicide, at common law, the rules of which were applicable in the District of Columbia, had degrees. Murder was 'with malice aforethought, either express or implied.' Blackstone, Book IV (Lewis ed.,

Page 473

...

To continue reading

Request your trial
199 practice notes
  • Whalen v. United States, No. 78-5471
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 16, 1980
    ...1725, 40 L.Ed.2d 198; see also Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 717-718, 69 S.Ct. 814, 820, 93 L.Ed. 993; Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 1324, 90 L.Ed. 1382. This practice has stemmed from the fact that Congress, in creating the courts of the District of C......
  • Pope v. United States, No. 18272.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
    • March 14, 1967
    ...631 (1913), where the Court noted that the "exact charge" used in the Davis case was again employed.7 See, also, Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 467, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 90 L.Ed. 1382 (1946), and Leland v. State of Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 800-801, 72 S.Ct. 1002, 96 L.Ed. 1302 (1952), where ......
  • Muench v. Israel, Nos. 81-2094
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • May 5, 1982
    ...was deemed a constitutionally acceptable practice by the Supreme Court. Four years after the Coleman decision, Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 90 L.Ed. 1382 (1946), was decided. As we noted in Hughes, 576 F.2d at 1256 n. 12, Fisher did not directly deal with the precis......
  • Virger v. State, S18A1538
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • February 18, 2019
    ...on a claim of insanity." Clark v. Arizona, 548 U.S. 735, 742, 126 S.Ct. 2709, 165 L.Ed.2d 842 (2006). See also Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 90 LEd 1382 (1946) (holding that District of Columbia courts were not constitutionally required to instruct juries on men......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
198 cases
  • Whalen v. United States, No. 78-5471
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 16, 1980
    ...1725, 40 L.Ed.2d 198; see also Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 717-718, 69 S.Ct. 814, 820, 93 L.Ed. 993; Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 1324, 90 L.Ed. 1382. This practice has stemmed from the fact that Congress, in creating the courts of the District of C......
  • Pope v. United States, No. 18272.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
    • March 14, 1967
    ...631 (1913), where the Court noted that the "exact charge" used in the Davis case was again employed.7 See, also, Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 467, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 90 L.Ed. 1382 (1946), and Leland v. State of Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 800-801, 72 S.Ct. 1002, 96 L.Ed. 1302 (1952), where ......
  • Muench v. Israel, Nos. 81-2094
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • May 5, 1982
    ...was deemed a constitutionally acceptable practice by the Supreme Court. Four years after the Coleman decision, Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 90 L.Ed. 1382 (1946), was decided. As we noted in Hughes, 576 F.2d at 1256 n. 12, Fisher did not directly deal with the precis......
  • Virger v. State, S18A1538
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • February 18, 2019
    ...on a claim of insanity." Clark v. Arizona, 548 U.S. 735, 742, 126 S.Ct. 2709, 165 L.Ed.2d 842 (2006). See also Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 90 LEd 1382 (1946) (holding that District of Columbia courts were not constitutionally required to instruct juries on men......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • The Supreme Court as Protector of Civil Rights: Criminal Justice
    • United States
    • ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, The Nbr. 275-1, May 1951
    • May 1, 1951
    ...Andres v. United States, 333U. S. 740 (1948) ; but see Fisher v. United 103 Attempts to punish the refusing officer States, 328 U. S. 463 (1946)-Frankfurter, for contempt have generally failed: Boske v. Murphy, Rutledge, JJ., dissenting, Jackson, J., Comingore, 177 U. S. 459 (1900) ; United......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT