State v. Hinkle
|31 October 1996
|200 W.Va. 280,489 S.E.2d 257
|STATE of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Appellee v. Charles Rhea HINKLE, Defendant Below, Appellant
|West Virginia Supreme Court
1. As a general rule, the refusal to give a requested jury instruction is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. By contrast, the question of whether a jury was properly instructed is a question of law, and the review is de novo.
2. Unconsciousness (or automatism) is not part of the insanity defense, but is a separate claim which may eliminate the voluntariness of a criminal act. The burden of proof on this issue, once raised by the defense, remains on the State to prove that the act was voluntary beyond a reasonable doubt.
3. An instruction on the defense of unconsciousness is required when there is reasonable evidence that the defendant was unconscious at the time of the commission of the crime.
4. If a defendant is sufficiently apprised and aware of a preexisting condition and previously experienced recurring episodes of loss of consciousness, e.g., epilepsy, then operating a vehicle or other potentially destructive implement, with knowledge of the potential danger, might well amount to reckless disregard for the safety of others. Therefore, the jury should be charged that even if it believes there is a reasonable doubt about the defendant's consciousness at the time of the event, the voluntary operation of a motor vehicle with knowledge of the potential for loss of consciousness can constitute reckless behavior.
Timothy L. Sweeney, Prosecuting Attorney, St. Marys, for Appellee.
John M. Butler, St. Marys, for Appellant.
The defendant below and appellant herein, Charles Rhea Hinkle, appeals a verdict by a jury in the Circuit Court of Pleasants County of guilty of involuntary manslaughter. By order dated May 17, 1995, the circuit court denied the defendant's motions for a judgment of acquittal and a new trial, and sentenced him to one year in the Pleasants County jail. This appeal ensued. 1
On June 12, 1993, the defendant finished his work shift at the Ormet Corporation, an aluminum plant in Hannibal, Ohio, at approximately 4:00 p.m. He obtained a ride to the Village Inn tavern in Paden City, West Virginia. 2 At the tavern, the defendant made several telephone calls attempting to locate someone to give him a ride to his car. 3 The defendant also ordered a can of beer, and drank approximately one-third of the beer. While at the tavern, the defendant complained of not feeling well, dizziness, and double vision. The tavern owner's daughter then agreed to take the defendant to retrieve his car. As he was leaving the bar, the defendant took an unopened can of beer with him.
At approximately 7:30 p.m., the defendant was traveling north on Route 2 in St. Marys, West Virginia. 4 Robert Barrett was driving south on Route 2 with his wife, Charlotte Ann Barrett. It appears the defendant's car gradually crossed the centerline and traveled in a straight line for approximately two hundred yards in the southbound lane before it collided head-on with the Barrett automobile. 5 As a result of the accident, the defendant and Mr. Barrett suffered severe injuries. Mrs. Barrett also sustained serious injuries, and died as a result of those injuries. Eyewitnesses reported the defendant crossed the centerline in a consistent, even fashion without attempting to swerve, brake, change directions, or stop. 6 Witnesses also indicated that both the defendant and Mr. Barrett were traveling at the posted speed limit. A bystander stated the defendant was semi-conscious immediately after the accident, and his breath smelled of alcohol.
An investigation of the defendant's vehicle immediately after the accident revealed one open can of beer, which was one-half full, in the driver's door compartment; several empty beer cans on the passenger's floor; four full beer cans on the rear floor; three empty beer cans on the driver's floor; and an empty glass, which smelled of beer, on the ground near the car. The defendant was transported to Camden Clark Memorial Hospital where testing revealed he had a blood alcohol level of less than one hundredth of one percent. Officer Charles Templeton of the Pleasants County Sheriff's Department, who investigated the accident, also requested that a blood sample from the defendant be tested by the crime lab. The crime lab found the defendant's blood alcohol level to be less than one thousandth of one percent, well below the statutory definition of intoxication. 7 While treating the defendant's injuries, he was given a Magnetic Resonance Imaging [MRI] scan to determine whether he had sustained any head injuries. The MRI results indicated the defendant had an undiagnosed brain disorder in the portion of his brain that regulates consciousness.
On September 13, 1993, a Pleasants County grand jury returned an indictment charging the defendant with the misdemeanor offense of involuntary manslaughter while driving a motor vehicle in an unlawful manner in violation of W. Va.Code, 61-2-5 (1923). The defendant stood trial, by jury, for this charge in Pleasants County on March 1, 1995. During the trial, the defendant's son testified that the defendant had been having memory loss for several months prior to the accident, and that he believed the defendant had seen a doctor in New Martinsville, West Virginia. Similarly, the tavern owner stated the defendant had complained of feeling ill during the months preceding the collision, 8 and he had complained of dizziness, memory Defense witness, Ronald Washburn, M.D., 9 reported the defendant's MRI scan showed an undiagnosed brain disorder affecting the reticular activating system of his brain. Dr. Washburn reasoned that because this portion of the brain affects one's consciousness, this disorder could have caused the defendant to suddenly lose consciousness immediately before the collision. 10 He also indicated the defendant had developed this brain abnormality approximately four to eight months prior to the accident, 11 and the disease was not caused by chronic alcohol abuse. Testifying further, Dr. Washburn surmised the defendant's prior memory loss was a symptom of his brain disorder, but his other complaints of not feeling well, dizziness, and blurred or double vision were not related to this disease. 12 Concluding his opinion, Dr. Washburn determined the defendant's brain disorder would not have been diagnosed if he had not had an MRI scan after the accident. Finally, both the defendant and Mr. Barrett testified they could not recall any details of the automobile accident. 13
[200 W.Va. 283] loss, and double vision on the night of the accident. She, too, believed the defendant recently had been treated by a physician.
The trial court denied the defendant's motion to dismiss the indictment 14; his motion to suppress all evidence obtained immediately after the accident showing the presence of alcoholic beverage containers in or around the defendant's car, and statements indicating the defendant and his car smelled of alcohol; and his motions for a directed verdict of acquittal. 15 The trial court further denied the defendant's proposed jury instruction regarding the insanity defense, 16 to which defense counsel objected. 17 Determining "[O]ne who suffers from an as yet undiagnosed disease or defect cannot be convicted of involuntary manslaughter for a death resulting from his operation of an automobile unless the State proves beyond a reasonable doubt that:
Following deliberations, the jury, on March 2, 1995, returned a verdict of guilty of involuntary manslaughter. By order dated May 17, 1995, the circuit court denied the defendant's motions for a judgment of acquittal and a new trial, and sentenced him to one year in the Pleasants County Jail. 20
Despite the additional issues raised, disposition of this appeal begins and ends with an inquiry into whether the jury instructions were inadequate. Thus, the appeal in this case has been limited to one issue: Whether the jury was instructed properly as to the defense of unconsciousness. The defendant claims the trial court committed reversible error when it refused to give his insanity instruction. On the other hand, the State contends...
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