People v. Steele

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtKAUS; SHINN, P. J., and FORD
Citation237 Cal.App.2d 182,46 Cal.Rptr. 704
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Ralph STEELE, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date23 September 1965

Page 704

46 Cal.Rptr. 704
237 Cal.App.2d 182
The PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff-Respondent,
Ralph STEELE, Defendant-Appellant.
District Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 3, California.
Sept. 23, 1965.
Rehearing Denied Oct. 14, 1965.
Hearing Denied Nov. 16, 1965.

[237 Cal.App.2d 183] Burton Marks, under appointment by the District Court of Appeal, Beverly Hills, for appellant.

Thomas C. Lynch, Atty. Gen., William E. James, Asst. Atty. Gen., David S. Sperber, Deputy Atty. Gen., for respondent.

KAUS, Justice.

Defendant was charged with murder and assault with intent to commit murder. The acts charged took place on April 15, 1959. Defendant was not brought to trial until August 21, 1963, appointed psychiatrists having found him to be insane during most of the intervening period. Defendant pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason

Page 705

of insanity. A jury found him guilty of first degree murder and of the assault, as charged. It also found that he was sane at the time of the offenses. Punishment for the murder was fixed at life imprisonment. Defendant appealed and we appointed counsel at his request.

Since all three court appointed psychiatrists who testified on the issue of insanity said that defendant was insane at the time of the offenses charged, it is understandable that the entire thrust of defendant's argument is directed at the verdict finding him to have been sane. Both parties have devoted the major portion of their briefs to just one question: is this case governed by In re Dennis, 51 Cal.2d 666, 335 P.2d 657, where the Supreme Court found a finding of sanity to be unsupportable against uncontradicted evidence, or by People v. Wolff, 61 Cal.2d 795, 40 Cal.Rptr. 271, 394 P.2d 959, where the court held that in spite of the apparent unanimity of the psychiatrists to the effect that the defendant was insane, the record nevertheless contained sufficient evidence to uphold the jury's verdict to the contrary.

As we see it we cannot reach this issue because at the trial on the issue of guilt the court committed so fundamental an error by restricting defendant's proof on the question of his specific mental state that we must reverse although the point is not raised in the briefs. (Kurlan v. Columbia Broadcasting System, 40 Cal.2d 799, 806, 256 P.2d 962; Philbrook v. Randall, 195 Cal. 95, 105, 231 P. 739; Schubert v. Lowe, 193 Cal. 291, 294, 223 P. 550; Estate of Fries, 221 Cal.App.2d 725, 730, 34 Cal.Rptr. 749.)

[237 Cal.App.2d 184] To put the problem in its proper setting, very little needs to be said about the facts of the murder and the assault.

In brief, the murder victim was the former wife of the defendant, while the target of the assault was her former attorney, who had acted for her in the divorce case between defendant and decedent. The divorce had been obtained in 1954, but ever since then, until the time of the murder, defendant lived in the same apartment court as his former wife, though they never spoke.

Defendant became extremely dissatisfied with the division of property decreed in the divorce case. On several occasions he threatened to kill his former wife and the attorney. He also believed that there had been an illicit relationship between the wife and the attorney and that his youngest child was the result thereof. On April 15, 1959 defendant killed his wife by means of an instrument which could have been a hammer and assaulted the attorney with a claw hammer, causing multiple wounds to his head.

These are the bare bones of the prosecution's case on the issue of guilt. Since defendant does not question the sufficiency of the evidence to support the finding that he committed the acts in question, no elaboration is necessary.

Defendant offered no evidence to contradict the facts of the two crimes. On the issue of guilt his only witness was Doctor Von Hagen, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry since 1934, whose qualifications were not challenged by the prosecution and who had been appointed by the court to examine defendant in May of 1959, shortly after the commission of the offenses. In answer to a hypothetical question the doctor said that in his view defendant could form a deliberate intent to take the life of a human being and could premeditate and deliberate with respect to the wilful taking of another person's life. The doctor also testified that defendant was capable of having malice aforethought, basing his definition of that term on an instruction which was apparently before him, but not made part of the record. He also said that defendant was psychotic, but when asked as to the type of psychosis, the prosecutor objected as follows: 'Our concern at this stage of the proceedings, at least, is to whether or not he had the mental capacity to carry out the act complained of, that is, at least, at this phase under the issues joined by not guilty.'

Page 706

There followed a lengthy discussion at the bench concerning what further psychiatric evidence, if any, was admissible on the issue of guilt. Defense counsel, to indicate to what he [237 Cal.App.2d 185] expected Doctor Von Hagen to testify said: 'Your Honor, this is what I have in mind. I have discussed the matter with the doctor and he is not going to in any way give his opinion as to whether he is sane or insane. * * * The Doctor has given his opinion as to premeditation and deliberation. Now, I wish to bring out what the doctor considers the foundation for his opinion on premeditation and deliberation in this way. The doctor says that the man can premeditate and deliberate but that the reasoning for premeditating and deliberating is unsound, illogical, because he is a paranoid--delusional type. Now it is my contention that under the law of premeditation, deliberation and aforethought, that in order to fulfill those requirements of first degree and second degree murder, that one must have the mental capacity to reason soundly. I am not talking about not guilty by reason of insanity. This has nothing to do with not guilty by reason of insanity. But one must have the mental capacity and mental facilities to reason soundly. * * * It is my contention that when the law says that one premeditates and deliberates that means one premeditates and deliberates soundly. It has nothing to do with insanity. I am talking about if a man falls short of not guilty by reason of insanity and he premeditates and deliberates with an unsound mind, he then--and has no malice--or has malice aforethought with an unsound mind, he falls within the category of manslaughter. * * * If a man premeditates and deliberates with an unsound mind, and assuming here that there is no issue of not guilty by reason of insanity, and that also that there is no plea of not guilty by reason of insanity in issue or pled, that it is my contention that I may offer evidence as to, if you want to call it mental illness--it doesn't make any difference what tag you put on it--that I can offer evidence of mental illness, that the man premeditated, deliberated, had malice aforethought but with an unsound mind, therefore does not fall within the category of the law. Submit it to you, sir.'

The court's reply was: 'I can't go along with that thinking. Everybody is presumed to be sane. That is the reason why they have this special plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. I will sustain the objection. * * *'

This, however, did not end the discussion. Seeking guidance from the court as to just how far he could go with the psychiatrist, defense counsel reargued his position, making it again quite clear that what he had in mind was to prove what [237 Cal.App.2d 186] is sometimes called a 'Wells-Gorshen' defense. 1 In other words, he proposed to prove that defendant, though perhaps not legally insane within the meaning of the M'Naughton rule, did nevertheless suffer from a mental...

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11 cases
  • People v. Saille, F011046
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • June 14, 1990 the best possible evidence that it did not exist.' [Citation.] Moreover, as Justice Kaus pointed out in People v. Steele (1965) 237 Cal.App.2d 182, 190-191 [46 Cal.Rptr. 704] ..., evidence which tends to prove that a defendant could not entertain a certain intent may, when subject to cro......
  • People v. Wetmore, Cr. 19738
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • September 26, 1978 a Defense: The Bifurcated Trial (1961) 49 Cal.L.Rev. 805, 819.) Moreover, as Justice Kaus pointed out in People v. Steele (1965) 237 Cal.App.2d 182, 190-191, 46 Cal.Rptr. 704, evidence which tends to prove that a defendant could not entertain a certain intent may, when subject to cross-e......
  • People v. Williams, Cr. 19371
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • December 16, 1971
    ...was not at all aware of his action or did not have the capacity to premeditate, deliberate or harbor malice. (See People v. Steele, 237 Cal.App.2d 182, 191, 46 Cal.Rptr. 704, 710, where this court points out that '(t)he result of Wolff (supra) makes it abundantly clear that the same testimo......
  • People v. Muszalski, Cr. 6142
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • March 29, 1968
    ...could have resulted only from mental disease or mental defect. There was no evidence of organic trouble, as in People v. Steele, 237 Cal.App.2d 182, 46 Cal.Rptr. 704, (cerebral arteriosclerosis). There was no sudden change in personality, as in People v. Goedecke, 65 Cal.2d 850, 56 Cal.Rptr......
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