Johnson v. State, No. 54917

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
Writing for the CourtSULLIVAN; MISTAKENLY INFORMED THE JURY THAT JOHNSON; PATTERSON; DAN M. LEE
Citation475 So.2d 1136
Decision Date04 September 1985
Docket NumberNo. 54917
PartiesChristine JOHNSON v. STATE of Mississippi.

Page 1136

475 So.2d 1136
Christine JOHNSON
v.
STATE of Mississippi.
No. 54917.
Supreme Court of Mississippi.
Sept. 4, 1985.
Rehearing Denied Sept. 25, 1985.

Page 1138

Thomas H. Pearson, Clarksdale, for appellant.

Bill Allain, Atty. Gen. by Frankie Walton White, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., Edwin Lloyd Pittman, Atty. Gen. by Jack B. Lacy, Jr., Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., Jackson, for appellee.

Before WALKER, P.J., and PRATHER and SULLIVAN, JJ.

SULLIVAN, Justice, for the Court:

Christine Johnson was convicted by the Circuit Court of Coahoma County, Mississippi, for the murder of her three-and-a-half month old son, Ceddrick, and sentenced to life in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

On the night of January 22, 1982, police officers were summoned to the apartment of Christine Johnson. There they found the body of Christine's 3 1/2 month old son, Ceddrick. The baby was badly bruised and cut.

Johnson was interrogated twice at her apartment that night and after the second interrogation was arrested. At the trial, her defenses consisted of denial, accident and insanity. Johnson appealed the conviction and assigned the following errors:

I.

WAS THE INDICTMENT FATALLY

DEFECTIVE FOR FAILING TO ALLEGE MALICE

AFORETHOUGHT?

The indictment under which Christine Johnson was tried reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

2. Did unlawfully, wilfully, feloniously and without authority of law kill and murder Ceddrick Johnson, a human being, while the said Christine Johnson was engaged in acts emminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved heart, regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual, in violation of MCA 97-3-19(1)(b).

Mississippi Code Annotated 99-7-37 (1972), provides as follows:

In an indictment for homicide it shall not be necessary to set forth the manner in which or the means by which the death of the deceased was caused, but it shall be sufficient to charge in an indictment for murder, that the defendant did feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, kill and murder the deceased. ... (Emphasis added).

Johnson contends that Sec. 99-7-37 mandates the use of the language "malice aforethought", and that it was error to overrule her demurrer to the indictment for its failure to use that language. She is wrong.

Rule 2.05, Miss. Uniform Criminal Rules of Cir. Court Practice sets out what form the indictment shall be in. It provides as follows: "The indictment upon which the defendant is to be tried shall be a plain, concise and definite written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense charged and shall fully notify the defendant of the nature and cause of the accusation against him. Formal or technical

Page 1139

words are not necessary in an indictment, if the offense can be substantially described without them." (Emphasis added).

This indictment followed the language of the "depraved heart" murder statute as set out in Mississippi Code Annotated Sec. 97-3-19(1)(b) (Supp.1984). Whether an indictment in the language of the statute is sufficient, or whether other words or acts are necessary to properly charge the commission of a crime is dependent upon the nature of the offense and the terms in which it is described by the statute. If the statute fully and clearly defines the offense, the language of the statute is sufficient. Jackson v. State, 420 So.2d 1045, 1046 (Miss.1982), (following numerous cases cited therein).

It is our duty to harmonize our statutes if they appear to conflict, and because we find no conflict between these two statutes that harmony comes readily. Sec. 97-3-19(1)(b) is sufficient in language to properly charge one with "depraved heart" murder. Sec. 99-7-37 does not mandate "malice aforethought" in every murder indictment, but merely proclaims that an indictment in that form will be sufficient.

Accordingly, in keeping with our statutes, case law and criminal procedure rules, we find that it was not error to overrule the demurrer to this indictment. The case of Buchanan v. State, 97 Miss. 839, 53 So. 399 (1910), which held that a murder indictment which leaves out the word malice is "fatally defective", is therefore overruled.

II.

WAS IT ERROR TO REFUSE JOHNSON'S INSTRUCTION D-1 ON MALICE AFORETHOUGHT AND

OVER OBJECTION GRANT STATE'S INSTRUCTION S-1 WHICH DID NOT REQUIRE A MALICE

AFORETHOUGHT FINDING BY THE

JURY?

It has long been the case law of this state that malice aforethought, premeditated design, and deliberate design all mean the same thing. See Dye v. State, 127 Miss. 492, 90 So. 180 (1921); Hawthorne v. State, 58 Miss. 778 (1881); McDaniel v. State, 8 Smed. and M. 401 (Miss.1847). Furthermore, in Talbert v. State, 172 Miss. 243, 159 So. 549, 551 (1935), the Court had under consideration two jury instructions, one of them being in the precise language of the "depraved heart" murder statute. The Court, referring to the forerunner of Sec. 97-3-19(1)(a) and (b) (sec. 985 subds. (a) and (b) of the Code of 1930), said the following:

This statute but epitomizes the common law found.... Murder is the voluntary killing of any person of malice prepense or aforethought, either express or implied by law; the sense of which word malice is not only confined to a particular ill-will to the deceased, but is intended to denote ... an action flowing from a wicked and corrupt motive, a thing done malo animo, where the fact has been attended with such circumstances as carry in them the plain indications of a heart regardless of social duty and fatally bent upon mischief. (Emphasis added), (citations omitted).

The "depraved heart" murder statute provides as follows:

(1) The killing of a human being without the authority of law by any means or in any manner shall be murder in the following cases:

....

(b) When done in the commission of an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved heart, regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual;

....

(Emphasis added).

State's Instruction S-1 reads as follows:

The defendant, Christine Johnson, has been charged by an indictment with the crime of Murder, for having caused the death of Ceddrick Johnson while acting in a manner eminently dangerous to others

Page 1140

and evincing a depraved heart, regardless of human life.

If you find from the evidence in this case beyond a reasonable doubt and to the exclusion of every other reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence that:

1. The deceased, Ceddrick Johnson, was a living human being; and

2. Ceddrick Johnson was killed by the defendant Christine Johnson, without authority of law; and

3. The defendant, Christine Johnson, was engaged in the commission of an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved heart, regardless of human life, when the mortal or killing blow was struck, whether or not she had any intention of actually killing Ceddrick Johnson; then you shall find the defendant guilty of Murder.

If the State has failed to prove any one or more of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt and to the exclusion of every other reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence, then you shall find the defendant not guilty.

The statute itself, therefore, expressly dispenses with the requirement of premeditated design, or malice aforethought. Further, if malice aforethought be required, it would be most difficult to conclude that it is not synonymous with "depraved heart". This Court has held that "synonymous phrases or interchangeable words may be used in a jury instruction and the jury still be properly instructed." Lancaster v. State, 472 So.2d 363, 367 (Miss.1985) (citing Erving v. State, 427 So.2d 701 (Miss.1983).

More importantly, Instruction S-1 followed the language of the statute; therefore, it was proper. This assignment is without merit; nor is the argument that, "feloniously" and "willfully" should have been contained in Instruction S-1 persuasive. The statute simply does not contain these words; moreover, "without authority of the law" and "engaged in the commission of an act", both used in the instruction, are respectively synonymous with "feloniously" and "willfully". See Lancaster, supra.

III.

DID THE LOWER COURT ERR DURING VOIR DIRE IN REFUSING TO

ALLOW JOHNSON TO QUESTION JURORS ABOUT THEIR PERSONAL

FEELINGS ON ALCOHOL USE AND IF THE JURORS COULD RETURN A NOT

GUILTY VERDICT IF THERE REMAINED A REASONABLE POSSIBILITY

THAT THE DEFENDANT WAS INNOCENT?

During voir dire, Johnson's lawyer asked for a show of hands from anyone with conscientious scruples against the use of alcohol. No hands were raised. He then asked if any of the jurors had used alcohol within thirty days, and several hands were then raised. The lawyer then asked for a showing of hands from those jurors who had not used alcohol within thirty days. At this juncture, the trial judge stated, "that would be those who did not raise their hands the last time."

The lawyer then asked if the jurors would be prejudiced against Johnson just because she had partaken of alcohol. Several jurors shook their head indicating a negative response. The trial judge thereupon directed Johnson's lawyer to have the panel raise their hands or stand up, rather than respond with head nods. Voir dire proceeded but there were no further questions concerning the use of alcohol.

Later in the voir dire, Johnson's lawyer attempted to ask if the jurors understood it was their duty to return a not guilty verdict so long as there remained a "reasonable possibility that the defendant is innocent." The trial judge interrupted and said that the court "will instruct the jury as to what the burden is, ... you are misusing the words and the terms."

Johnson makes no meaningful argument in support of this assignment and as a general rule unsupported assignments of error are not considered by this Court.

Page 1141

Harris v. State, 386...

To continue reading

Request your trial
145 practice notes
  • Brown v. State, No. 95-DP-00407-SCT
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • December 12, 1996
    ...Instructions C-2 and C-3. There is a presumption that the jury will follow the instructions given to them by the court. Johnson v. State, 475 So.2d 1136, 1142 (Miss.1985). Given the broad leeway attorneys are allowed in their closing arguments, Ballenger, 667 So.2d at 1272, and the fact tha......
  • De La Beckwith v. State, Nos. 94-KA-00402-SC
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • December 22, 1997
    ...of the statute. Deal v. State, 589 So.2d 1257, 1260 (Miss.1991); Mackbee v. State, 575 So.2d 16, 34 (Miss.1990); Johnson v. State, 475 So.2d 1136, 1140 (Miss.1985). Furthermore, we have approved the use of the phrase "without authority of law" in jury instructions, ruling that the phrase is......
  • Carney v. State, No. 57395
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • April 13, 1988
    ...court was a proper statement of the law and the trial judge should not be put in error for granting this instruction. Johnson v. State, 475 So.2d 1136, 1140 (Miss.1985); Lancaster v. State, 472 So.2d 363, 367 Furthermore we will not put the trial court in error for refusing a constructive p......
  • Berry v. State, No. 2002-DR-00301-SCT.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • July 1, 2004
    ...court." Id. at 1209; see also Crenshaw v. State, 520 So.2d 131 (Miss.1988); McFee v. State, 511 So.2d 130 (Miss.1987); Johnson v. State, 475 So.2d 1136 ¶ 42. This issue is without merit. V. WHETHER IT WAS ERROR FOR THE SENTENCING COURT NOT TO ALLOW BERRY TO ATTACK THE VALIDITY OF HIS CONFES......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
145 cases
  • Brown v. State, No. 95-DP-00407-SCT
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • December 12, 1996
    ...Instructions C-2 and C-3. There is a presumption that the jury will follow the instructions given to them by the court. Johnson v. State, 475 So.2d 1136, 1142 (Miss.1985). Given the broad leeway attorneys are allowed in their closing arguments, Ballenger, 667 So.2d at 1272, and the fact tha......
  • De La Beckwith v. State, Nos. 94-KA-00402-SC
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • December 22, 1997
    ...of the statute. Deal v. State, 589 So.2d 1257, 1260 (Miss.1991); Mackbee v. State, 575 So.2d 16, 34 (Miss.1990); Johnson v. State, 475 So.2d 1136, 1140 (Miss.1985). Furthermore, we have approved the use of the phrase "without authority of law" in jury instructions, ruling that the phrase is......
  • Carney v. State, No. 57395
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • April 13, 1988
    ...court was a proper statement of the law and the trial judge should not be put in error for granting this instruction. Johnson v. State, 475 So.2d 1136, 1140 (Miss.1985); Lancaster v. State, 472 So.2d 363, 367 Furthermore we will not put the trial court in error for refusing a constructive p......
  • Berry v. State, No. 2002-DR-00301-SCT.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • July 1, 2004
    ...court." Id. at 1209; see also Crenshaw v. State, 520 So.2d 131 (Miss.1988); McFee v. State, 511 So.2d 130 (Miss.1987); Johnson v. State, 475 So.2d 1136 ¶ 42. This issue is without merit. V. WHETHER IT WAS ERROR FOR THE SENTENCING COURT NOT TO ALLOW BERRY TO ATTACK THE VALIDITY OF HIS CONFES......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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