State v. Thompson

Decision Date25 October 2001
Docket NumberNo. 1 CA-CR 00-0439.,1 CA-CR 00-0439.
Citation34 P.3d 382,201 Ariz. 273
PartiesSTATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Larry D. THOMPSON, Appellant.
CourtArizona Court of Appeals

Janet Napolitano, Attorney General By Paul J. McMurdie, Chief Counsel, Criminal Appeals Section and Kerri L. Chamberlin, Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, Attorneys for Appellee.

James Haas, Maricopa County Public Defender by James R. Rummage, Deputy Public Defender, Phoenix, Attorneys for Appellant.


SULT, Judge.

¶ 1 A jury convicted Defendant Larry D. Thompson of the first-degree premeditated murder of his estranged wife. On appeal, defendant challenges the constitutionality of the statute defining premeditation, the concept that distinguishes first-degree from second-degree murder. See Arizona Revised Statutes ("A.R.S.") § 13-1101(1) (2001). Because we agree that the statutory definition, as judicially construed, lacks sufficient specificity to provide an adequate standard by which a fact-finder can differentiate the two degrees of murder, we conclude that the statute is void for vagueness. However, we also find that the defect in the statute did not infect the proceedings against defendant. Because there was no harm, defendant's conviction and sentence must be affirmed.


¶ 2 On the morning of May 17, 1999, defendant shot his estranged wife multiple times with a nine millimeter handgun. Defendant was arrested shortly thereafter and admitted the shooting. The state subsequently indicted him on one count of intentional or knowing premeditated first-degree murder under A.R.S. § 13-1105(A)(1) (2001).

¶ 3 Prior to trial, defendant moved to dismiss the charge, arguing that the 1998 amendment to the premeditation statute so changed the meaning of the term that it no longer meaningfully distinguished first-degree from second-degree murder, and the two offenses were now effectively merged into one. The trial court denied the motion without comment.

¶ 4 At trial, the defense maintained that defendant killed his wife in the heat of passion, and was therefore guilty of manslaughter or, at most, second-degree murder. The jury rejected this defense and convicted him of premeditated first-degree murder. The trial court sentenced defendant to prison for the remainder of his natural life, and he timely appealed.


¶ 5 Although defendant apportions his arguments on appeal among three perceived issues, there is actually only one material issue to be resolved. In 1998, when the legislature changed the definition of premeditation to provide that the state need not prove actual reflection, did this amendment cause the distinction between first- and second-degree murder to become so vague that a fact-finder could decide between the two only by making a completely arbitrary selection, a method of fact-finding prohibited by Fourteenth Amendment due process principles?


¶ 6 We begin with a brief discussion of the basic legal precepts that guide our analysis. It is well settled that a legislature has broad, discretionary power to classify crimes and provide operative definitions for those crimes. State v. Hickey, 114 Ariz. 394, 396-97, 561 P.2d 315, 317-18 (1977). For example, a legislature may classify homicide in any manner it chooses, and could, if it wished, abolish the traditional distinctions among the various degrees of murder and codify a single offense of homicide encompassing every instance in which one person unlawfully takes the life of another. See id.

¶ 7 However, the Arizona Legislature has chosen to retain the traditional distinction between degrees of murder, classifying intentional or knowing murder into first-degree murder if committed with premeditation, and second-degree murder if not. Compare A.R.S. § 13-1105(A)(1) with A.R.S. § 13-1104(A)(1) and (2). When a legislative body chooses to distinguish between degrees of an offense in this manner, its power to choose the classifications and definitions necessary to accomplish its purpose is not unfettered. Rather, its discretion is circumscribed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A fundamental restriction placed on the legislative power by this provision is that the definitions or classifications employed shall not be arbitrary or capricious, nor permit arbitrary or capricious application. See State v. Leeman, 119 Ariz. 459, 462, 581 P.2d 693, 696 (1978).

¶ 8 One of the due process devices used to measure legislation for compliance with these requirements is the vagueness doctrine. Put simply, the doctrine holds that a law that is vague is void. A fuller statement of the doctrine, and its rationale, is provided in Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 92 S.Ct. 2294, 33 L.Ed.2d 222 (1972):

It is a basic principle of due process that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several important values. First, because we assume that man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning. Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them. A vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.

408 U.S. at 108-09, 92 S.Ct. 2294 (footnotes omitted).

¶ 9 Regarding the second evil of a vague statute, the danger of arbitrary and discriminatory application, the United States Supreme Court has noted that a law that lacks explicit standards licenses the jury to create its own standard in each case. Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242, 262-63, 57 S.Ct. 732, 81 L.Ed. 1066 (1937). What is required of a statute is that it prescribe a reasonably ascertainable standard of guilt for all cases arising under it. Id. at 261, 57 S.Ct. 732. "[A] law fails to meet the requirements of the Due Process Clause if it is so vague and standardless that it leaves ... judges and jurors free to decide, without any legally fixed standards, what is prohibited and what is not in each particular case." Giaccio v. Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399, 402-03, 86 S.Ct. 518, 15 L.Ed.2d 447 (1966).

¶ 10 Defendant's challenge to the premeditation statute is based on this "arbitrary and discriminatory application" prong of the vagueness doctrine. According to defendant, premeditation is intended to be the benchmark between first- and second-degree murder by which all the participants in the criminal justice system, but especially jurors, can make a reasoned distinction between first- and second-degree murder. However, when the legislature eliminated proof of actual reflection as a requirement for premeditation, this obliterated any meaningful difference between the two degrees of murder. Thus, after determining that a defendant had formed the intent or knowledge necessary to constitute murder, jurors were left with no principled way to decide in which category to place the murder, opening the door to arbitrary decisions based on unacceptable criteria such as sympathy or prejudice.

¶ 11 Our analysis of defendant's argument starts with the premeditation statute itself. From 1978 to 1998, the legislature defined premeditation to mean

that the defendant acts with either the intention or the knowledge that he will kill another human being, when such intention or knowledge precedes the killing by a length of time to permit reflection. An act is not done with premeditation if it is the instant effect of a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.

A.R.S. § 13-1101(1) (1978). Read literally, this statute defined premeditation in terms only of the passage of time but did not quantify the amount of time that must elapse for premeditation to have occurred. The only guidepost the statute provided as to the amount of time sufficient to constitute premeditation was whatever amount was necessary to permit reflection.

¶ 12 Arizona courts, however, did not read the statute literally. For example, in State v. Kreps, 146 Ariz. 446, 448-49, 706 P.2d 1213, 1215-16 (1985), after setting forth the statute in haec verba, our supreme court noted that the state was required to prove that before the act of killing, "a plan to murder was formed after the matter had been made a subject of deliberation and reflection." In State v. Schurz, 176 Ariz. 46, 55 n. 5, 859 P.2d 156, 165 n. 5 (1993), our supreme court observed in passing that "[i]n addition to intention or knowledge, premeditation requires reflection." Thus, notwithstanding the statute's narrower definition of premeditation as solely the passage of time, our supreme court continued to treat premeditation as also including the act of reflection in addition to the passage of time.

¶ 13 More recently, this court in State v. Ramirez, 190 Ariz. 65, 945 P.2d 376 (App. 1997), directly held that statutory premeditation required that not only must a period of time to permit reflection elapse, but also that actual reflection must occur during this period. 190 Ariz. at 69,945 P.2d at 380. We relied on pre-1978 Arizona Supreme Court cases defining premeditation as requiring actual reflection as well as some legislative history connected with the 1978 revisions to the Arizona criminal code that indicated the legislature did not intend to significantly change the existing law relative to homicide. Id. at 70, 945 P.2d at 381. In addition, we surveyed some post-1978 Arizona Supreme Court jurisprudence on the subject, such as the cases noted above, which indicated that the supreme court continued to regard premeditation as a concept involving actual reflection. Id.

¶ 14 In the 1998 legislative session, however, the Arizona Legislature...

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5 cases
  • State v. Booker
    • United States
    • Arizona Court of Appeals
    • September 12, 2002
    ...sufficient specificity to provide an adequate standard by which a fact-finder can differentiate the two degrees of murder." State v. Thompson, 201 Ariz. 273, ¶ 1, 34 P.3d 382, ¶ 1 (App.2001).5 In so holding, the court concluded that, "when premeditation is just an instant of time and nothin......
  • State v. Thompson
    • United States
    • Arizona Supreme Court
    • March 12, 2003
    ...of time, ... eliminat[ing] actual reflection as part of the definition, and ... overrul[ing] the case law to the contrary." State v. Thompson, 201 Ariz. 273, 278, ¶ 15, 34 P.3d 382, 387 ¶ 24 Nonetheless, the court concluded that the statute was not constitutionally infirm because it determi......
  • State v. Zamora, 1 CA-CR 01-0469.
    • United States
    • Arizona Court of Appeals
    • February 18, 2003
    ...issues: whether any reversible error resulted from the jury instruction defining premeditated murder, in light of State v. Thompson, 201 Ariz. 273, 34 P.3d 382 (App.2001)(review granted April 23, 2002); whether the legislature could differentiate between first and second degree murder solel......
  • Short v. Petty
    • United States
    • Arizona Court of Appeals
    • July 27, 2006
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