People v. Beach

Decision Date19 January 1988
Docket NumberDocket Nos. 75058,76536
Citation429 Mich. 450,418 N.W.2d 861
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Marian BEACH, Defendant-Appellant. PEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Jerry Lee EDWARDS, Defendant-Appellant. 429 Mich. 450, 418 N.W.2d 861
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Robert H. Cleland, St. Clair County Prosecuting Atty. by Peter R. George, Asst. Pros. Atty., Port Huron, Research Asst. Daniel Levy, for plaintiff-appellee in No. 75058.

State Appellate Defender Office by Mardi Crawford, Asst. Defender, Detroit, for defendant-appellant Marian Beach.

William F. Delhey, Washtenaw County Prosecutor by Lynwood E. Noah, Deputy Chief Asst. Pros. Atty., Ann Arbor, for plaintiff-appellee in No. 76536.

Don Ferris, Ann Arbor, for defendant-appellant Jerry Lee Edwards.

BRICKLEY, Justice.

These two cases require a determination whether the conclusions of the lower courts, that evidence adduced at trial was insufficient to support requests for instructions on cognate lesser included offenses, were in error. If these determinations were in error, we are asked to decide whether the failure to instruct on the lesser included offenses was harmless.

In People v. Edwards, we conclude that the requested cognate lesser offense instruction for involuntary manslaughter was not supported by the evidence, and, hence, the failure to instruct was not error.

In People v. Beach, we conclude that the requested cognate lesser offense instruction for conspiracy to commit larceny in a building was supported by the evidence, thus, failure to instruct was error. However, because the jury rejected the lesser included offense of conspiracy to commit unarmed robbery and convicted the defendant of the greater charged offense of conspiracy to commit armed robbery, we hold the error to be harmless. In doing so, we adopt and apply a type of harmless error analysis developed in People v. Ross, 73 Mich.App. 588, 252 N.W.2d 526 (1977). 1


We accept the Court of Appeals recitation of the facts in this case:

"Defendant was convicted as charged of first-degree murder, MCL 750.316; MSA 28.548. He received the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Defendant now appeals his conviction as of right and we affirm.

"On August 18, 1982, M.L. Hargrow perished in a fire that consumed a private residence in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The residence had been converted into numerous apartments and Hargrove [sic] was a resident of one of the second floor units. The point of origin of the fire was the front porch where fire officials discovered the presence of inflammable liquids. An empty can of charcoal lighter fluid was also found on the porch.

"Two days prior to the fire, defendant and Pat Johnson, a resident of one of the first floor units, had become involved in a heated argument leading to a physical altercation. At that time, defendant, who was drunk and under the influence of marijuana, threatened to burn up the house and everyone in it. Early in the morning of August 18, 1982, defendant and several other people were drinking at the apartment of Andrew Richardson. Defendant left the apartment around 1 o'clock in the morning and returned later, informing Richardson that he had burned down the house on Ann and State Street. Defendant's hands smelled of gasoline and he removed the t-shirt that he was wearing and threw it in Richardson's clothes hamper. Richardson turned defendant's t-shirt over to the police the following day and an expert in the analysis of materials determined that the shirt contained traces of gasoline. Defendant told Richardson and others that he would 'blow their heads off' if they informed anyone about what he had done. Defendant also admitted to another friend that he had firebombed Pat Johnson's house.

"Defendant presented virtually no evidence at trial.

"Prior to closing argument, defendant requested an instruction on involuntary manslaughter as a lesser included offense of murder. The trial court denied the request on the ground that the evidence did not support a manslaughter conviction. Following the court's instructions to the jury, defendant objected on the record to the manner in which the trial court had instructed on felony-murder."

The felony-murder instruction, it was argued by the defendant, left the jury with an impression that the intent necessary to establish first-degree murder could be inferred by finding an intent to commit arson. The Court of Appeals found no error since the prosecution had introduced evidence to support either first-degree murder or felony murder, see People v. Johnson, 99 Mich.App. 547, 297 N.W.2d 713 (1980), lv. den. 412 Mich. 928 (1982), and found that the instructions, in their entirety, were not prejudicial because they clearly directed the jury to not equate intent to commit arson with malice. Any ambiguity was found to be minimal and "corrected."

The allegation of error in the trial court's refusal to instruct on the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter was also rejected by the Court of Appeals. Edwards argued that the proofs presented by the state, and the fact that the fire started outside the residence, could lead to the inference that the perpetrator acted in a grossly negligent manner rather than with malice, that is, he never intended anyone in the house to be killed in the fire. The trial court refused the lesser included offense instruction because it determined that the evidence would not support such an instruction.

As a cognate lesser included offense, the Court of Appeals reviewed the evidence to determine whether an instruction on involuntary manslaughter was required. The panel agreed with the trial court that the evidence did not support the requested instruction, finding the felony of arson to preclude an instruction on involuntary manslaughter. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.


The Court of Appeals set forth a lengthy and detailed recitation of this case, including defendant's first trial. Essentially, defendant's live-in male companion, Jack Turner, testified against her about a series of events that led to defendant being charged with the first-degree felony murder of Sidney Dunbar and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. She was convicted of attempted murder of the second degree and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Excerpts of the Court of Appeals factual recitation are as follows:

"Late Friday night, May 26, 1978, he [Turner] and defendant drove to the Cinema Blue on Port Huron's north side. He sat in the car while defendant went in. As defendant returned to the car, she was approached by Sidney Dunbar and exchanged words with him. She then came over to the car, picked up her purse, put a small paring knife in it, and told Turner to follow her. Defendant then left with Dunbar in the latter's car. Turner followed to Dunbar's house where he observed defendant and Dunbar go inside. Later, he knocked on the door and introduced himself as defendant's brother when Dunbar answered the door. Dunbar allowed him in and they discussed defendant's safety and the procurement of women for sexual favors.

"Defendant came out of the bedroom and joined the conversation for a while before signalling to Turner that she had Dunbar's money. Turner and defendant then left promising to be in touch with Dunbar. They went home and showed defendant's father the $300 they had taken and discussed with him stealing more money and other property from Dunbar.

"Turner further testified that later, the next week, accompanied by defendant, they went to Dunbar's house where an argument occurred regarding the money that defendant had taken from Dunbar the previous week. Turner said, as he was attempting to tie Dunbar up, that he charged and Turner stabbed him. As Turner and Dunbar fought, defendant stabbed Dunbar in the head and back. Turner stabbed Dunbar four or five times killing him. They then left with some money and Dunbar's car. They returned later to wipe away fingerprints and take more items of property. Turner was not sure if Dunbar was really dead, so he got a knife from the kitchen and stabbed him again. The next morning, Turner borrowed his brother's car to go to the bank where he unsuccessfully tried to cash Dunbar's paycheck. Saturday afternoon, upon hearing that his brother had been arrested regarding the paycheck, Turner went with defendant to the police station to clear his brother.

"Turner's testimony was corroborated to the extent that employees at the Cinema Blue had seen Turner and defendant on the premises the nights of May 26 and June 2, 1978. Furthermore, Dunbar was considered a frequent customer there and had been seen the night of June 2, 1978. Also, Nancy Gates Warr testified that she was returning home on May 26, 1978, after a movie double feature at a drive-in when she saw Dunbar, who was white, standing in the parking lot of Cinema Blue, talking to a black female.

"Defendant took the stand on her own behalf and also produced alibi witnesses. She denied knowing Sidney Dunbar. She testified that she had been asleep on Friday night, May 26, 1978, when Turner woke her up to show her $300 he had won gambling. Mr. Beach, defendant's father, was sleeping on the couch at defendant's and Turner's place that night and he testified to the same sequence of events. Defendant and Mr. Beach denied any knowledge of Dunbar. As to Friday, June 2, 1978, defendant did not disagree with many of the things Turner said they had done. Defendant related how they dropped the children off at the babysitter's, had visited the Cinema Blue, and had eaten fish and chips by the Black River. Defendant's version of what occurred in the evening was markedly different. After picking up Little Jack, their son, at the babysitter's, they dropped him off at defendant's mother's. Eunice Jackson, defendant's mother, confirmed...

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