People v. Nowack

Citation614 N.W.2d 78,462 Mich. 392
Decision Date11 July 2000
Docket NumberDocket No. 113405, Calendar No. 1.
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Paul William NOWACK, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Jennifer M. Granholm, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, Stuart J. Dunnings III, Prosecuting Attorney, and Samuel R. Smith, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Lansing, MI, for people.

Gerald W. Gibbs, Muskegon Heights, MI, for defendant-appellee.

Elwood Brown, President, John D. O'Hair, Prosecuting Attorney, and Timothy A. Baughman, Chief, Research, Training and Appeals, Detroit, MI, for Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.



We granted leave in this felony murder case to determine whether the prosecution presented sufficient evidence of common-law arson, the felony underlying the convictions, M.C.L. § 750.316; MSA 28.548. A jury convicted defendant of two counts of felony murder, M.C.L. § 750.316; MSA 28.548, and one count of arson of a dwelling house, M.C.L. § 750.72; MSA 28.267. Defendant was thereafter sentenced to concurrent terms of life imprisonment on the felony murder counts, while the arson conviction was vacated. The Court of Appeals, in a split opinion, reversed on the ground of insufficient evidence and remanded with instructions to enter a conviction of involuntary manslaughter. We hold that the evidence of arson was legally sufficient and reinstate defendant's convictions of felony murder.

This case also affords us the opportunity to clarify the state of mind required to prove common-law arson. The Court of Appeals erred in assuming that common-law arson is a specific intent crime. Common-law arson is a general intent crime that merely requires the prosecutor to prove malice. It occurs in circumstances where a defendant intentionally or wantonly burns property without justification or excuse.

I. Underlying facts

On January 15, 1995, the ten-unit Lansing apartment building where defendant lived exploded and burned. The force of the explosion fragmented the building. The three center units were completely leveled and the roof was blown off. A sixty-seven-year-old woman and a ten-year-old boy who lived in the center section in apartments adjoining defendant's were killed. Ironically, although defendant was present in his apartment where the explosion originated, he sustained only burns and minor injuries. He walked away from the explosion and spoke coherently with investigators shortly thereafter.

The prosecution theorized that defendant attempted suicide by releasing gas into his apartment, resulting in the explosion and fire. Defendant essentially contended that the explosion and fire were accidental. The defense suggested various possible accidental sources of the gas, including the furnace and water heater. Further, the defense argued that if defendant deliberately released the gas, he may have been trying to asphyxiate himself or to gain attention rather than cause an explosion. By their verdicts, the jury accepted the prosecution's theory.

The evidence showed that defendant had attempted suicide three times in 1992. On January 8, just one week before the fire, defendant told his minister and later told a police officer that he wanted to' "end it all" by putting a "bullet in his head." The officer took defendant to a psychiatric hospital where he remained until the day before the explosion.

Defendant obtained a temporary pass to leave the psychiatric hospital on January 14. He asked his former girlfriend, Kathryne Russell, to transport him home from the hospital, but she wanted defendant to stay in the hospital. During their conversation, defendant threatened suicide and said that nobody would catch him this time. Despite defendant's suicidal threat, Russell did not comply with defendant's wishes. Defendant returned to his apartment by cab.

On the day of the crime, someone released gas into defendant's apartment by deliberately tampering with the gas pipe at its union with the water heater and loosening the pipes. Gas built up in defendant's apartment; it thereafter ignited, causing the explosion and fire. None of the other apartments experienced any gas buildup. The experts opined that the cause of the explosion was the combustion of an almost perfect mix of methane gas and air that "literally made a bomb of apartment number 5...."

The prosecution's experts systematically excluded accidental sources of the blast. They found no electrical malfunction because the building's gas regulator was in good condition and the gas lines had not ruptured. Given the exclusion of various accidental sources of gas and the evidence that the pipes had been loosened, the experts concluded that some human agency untied the gas train to allow an uninterrupted flow of gas into defendant's apartment.

The experts could not, however, explain how the gas had been ignited. They discounted possible sources of ignition, such as the presence of static electricity or the arc generated by a light switch, as unlikely in a residential setting.

The prosecution's experts also opined that the pattern of blast debris and the fact that the explosion flowed in an omnidirectional movement from the center established that the explosion originated in defendant's apartment. Further, defendant's lack of blast-related injuries strongly suggested that he was present at the epicenter of the explosion. Prosecution experts testified that following an explosion, a propagation wave becomes stronger as it leaves the point of ignition. Thus, a person located at the source of ignition has a greater chance of survival than someone who is located further away.

Other evidence revealed that defendant left a note on the apartment door warning Ms. Russell not to turn on any type of switch. Defendant also admitted to the police that he knew about gas appliances because he had worked in an appliance store. Finally, defendant falsely told police that he had unplugged appliances and tightened the gas union in the water heater/furnace area and shut down the gas line when he smelled gas, contrary to the physical evidence that the gas pipes had been loosened. The prosecution relied on this evidence to establish that defendant was the individual who tampered with the gas pipes.

II. Court of Appeals Analysis

In reversing, the Court of Appeals majority found "[w]hat is missing is sufficient evidence to establish that the ignition of the gas was the result of an intentional act on defendant's part." Unpublished opinion per curiam, issued October 9, 1998 (Docket No. 196655), slip op. p. 5. The majority noted that the prosecution experts could not determine the exact source of ignition. The majority assumed that defendant had deliberately filled his apartment with gas, but held that the evidence did not establish that defendant specifically intended to ignite the gas. An equally possible explanation was that defendant merely intended to asphyxiate himself. Accordingly, the panel majority found the proof insufficient.

In dissent, Judge Griffin accused the majority of usurping the jury's role as trier of fact. He noted that the prosecution's experts characterized defendant's theories of accident as improbable. Judge Griffin observed that the prosecutor was not required to negate every reasonable theory consistent with innocence. In his view, a reasonable juror could conclude that one who purposefully fills his apartment with natural gas intends an explosion to occur. He adopted the trial court's reasoning: one who loosens gas pipes and releases a quantity of gas intends the natural results thereof, i.e., an explosion or fire. Although static electricity possibly could have been the source of the ignition, the evidence supported the reasonable inference that defendant had purposefully created conditions from which an explosion and fire was a natural and probable consequence. Thus, the jury's verdicts were not irrational.

Judge Griffin cited the following evidence:

(1) [D]efendant deliberately filled his apartment with natural gas by loosening the gas pipe at its union, (2) the fire and explosion were caused by the ignition of the gas buildup, (3) defendant, as a former employee of an appliance store, was knowledgeable of the functioning of gas appliances, (4) defendant had a history of suicide attempts and expressed his intent to kill himself less than a week before the explosion, vowing that "nobody would catch him this time," (5) defendant's lack of "blast-related injuries" indicated that defendant was located at or near the origin of the ignition, (6) accidental ignition from static electricity (in a nonindustrial setting) or from an arc caused by a light switch or an appliance was very unlikely, and (7) defendant's note on his front door warning his girlfriend revealed defendant's knowledge of the danger and potential for the explosion that ultimately occurred (negating defendant's claim of accident or mistake). [Slip op., p. 3.]

We granted the prosecution's application for leave to appeal. 459 Mich. 1002, 595 N.W.2d 857 (1999).

II. Standard of review

The test for determining the sufficiency of evidence in a criminal case is whether the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the people, would warrant a reasonable juror in finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. People v. Hampton, 407 Mich. 354, 285 N.W.2d 284 (1979); Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). People v. Wolfe, 440 Mich. 508, 515, 489 N.W.2d 748 (1992), articulated the governing standard for reviewing sufficiency claims:

[W]hen determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to sustain a conviction, a court must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution and determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

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