State v. Thompson

Decision Date12 March 2003
Docket NumberNo. CR-01-0435-PR.,CR-01-0435-PR.
Citation65 P.3d 420,204 Ariz. 471
PartiesSTATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Larry D. THOMPSON, Appellant.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Janet A. Napolitano, Arizona Attorney General, by Randall M. Howe, Chief Counsel, Criminal Appeals Section and Joseph T. Maziarz, Assistant Attorney General and Kerri L. Chamberlin, Assistant Attorney General Tucson, Phoenix, Attorneys for Appellee.

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

OPINION

BERCH, Justice.

¶ 1 Defendant Larry Thompson challenges the constitutionality of Arizona's first degree murder statute, Ariz.Rev.Stat. ("A.R.S.") § 13-1105(A)(1) (2001). He argues that the definition of premeditation, which provides that "[p]roof of actual reflection is not required," eliminates any meaningful distinction between first and second degree murder and renders the first degree murder statute unconstitutionally vague. See A.R.S. § 13-1101(1) (2001). We accepted review to consider the constitutionality of the statute and to clarify both the meaning of premeditation and the State's burden of proof.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 On May 17, 1999, Thompson shot and killed his wife, Roberta Palma.1 Several days before the shooting, Palma had filed for divorce, and Thompson had discovered that she was seeing someone else. Just a week before the shooting, Thompson moved out of the couple's home. As he did so, Thompson threatened Palma that, "[i]f you divorce me, I will kill you."

¶ 3 Thompson returned to the couple's neighborhood the morning of May 17. He was seen walking on the sidewalk near the home and his car was spotted in a nearby alley. Two witnesses reported that a man dragged a woman by the hair from the front porch into the home. That same morning, police received and recorded a 9-1-1 call from the house. The tape recorded a woman's screams and four gunshots. The four gunshots span nearly twenty-seven seconds. Nine seconds elapse between the first shot and the third, and there is an eighteen-second delay between the third shot and the fourth.

¶ 4 Police arrived shortly after the call and found Palma dead from gunshot wounds. An autopsy of her body revealed several fresh abrasions, five non-contact gunshot wounds, and one contact gunshot wound.

¶ 5 At trial, Thompson did not deny killing his wife, but claimed that he did so in the heat of passion, making the killing manslaughter or, at most, second degree murder. During closing arguments, Thompson's counsel argued that the crime had occurred in the heat of passion and that Thompson had "simply snapped."

¶ 6 In her closing arguments, the prosecutor argued that the evidence that Thompson premeditated the murder was "overwhelming." She emphasized the timing of the shots and the delay between them. The prosecutor also reminded the jury of Thompson's threat, made a week before the murder, to kill his wife. The prosecutor then argued that Thompson need not actually have reflected, but only had the time to reflect: "But the main point to remember about premeditation is that premeditation is time to permit reflection. The instruction also tells you that actual reflection is not necessary, [only] the time to permit reflection." Nonetheless, the prosecutor referred to circumstantial evidence suggesting that Thompson actually had reflected, but then told the jury it need only decide that Thompson had the time to reflect, not that he actually had reflected.

¶ 7 After closing arguments, the judge instructed the jury regarding premeditation as follows:

"Premeditation" means 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 any length of time to permit reflection. Proof of actual reflection is not required, but an act is not done with premeditation if it is the instant effect of a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.2

¶ 8 The jury found Thompson guilty of first degree murder and the judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Thompson appealed, arguing that the definition of premeditation, particularly the clause stating that "[p]roof of actual reflection is not required," unconstitutionally relieved the State of the burden of proving the element of premeditation.

DISCUSSION

¶ 9 Our consideration of the constitutionality of any statute must be founded on principles of statutory construction. Our primary role when construing a statute is "to determine and give effect to the legislat[ure's] intent in enacting the statute." State v. Korzep, 165 Ariz. 490, 493, 799 P.2d 831, 834 (1990). In attempting to ascertain the statute's meaning, "we consider the statute's context, the language used, the subject matter, the historical background, the statute's effects and consequences, and the statute's spirit and purpose." Id.

¶ 10 Moreover, when considering a constitutional challenge to a statute, we begin with the premise that the statute is constitutional, San Carlos Apache Tribe v. Superior Court, 193 Ariz. 195, 204, ¶ 11, 972 P.2d 179, 188 (1999), and we construe it "so as to preserve [its] constitutionality wherever possible." State v. Soto-Fong, 187 Ariz. 186, 202, 928 P.2d 610, 626 (1996). Thus, we construe statutes sensibly, attempting to effectuate the intent of the legislature, and we avoid constructions that would render statutes invalid or parts of them meaningless. Mendelsohn v. Superior Court, 76 Ariz. 163, 169, 261 P.2d 983, 988 (1953).

¶ 11 The statute at issue, Arizona's first degree murder statute, provides that "[a] person commits first degree murder if ... [i]ntending or knowing that the person's conduct will cause death, the person causes the death of another with premeditation."3 A.R.S. § 13-1105(A)(1) (emphasis added). Thompson challenges the constitutionality of the statute, arguing that it renders first degree murder indistinguishable from second degree murder. A person commits second degree murder in Arizona "if without premeditation... [s]uch person intentionally causes the death of another person." A.R.S. § 13-1104(A)(1) (2001) (emphasis added). Thus, for the purposes of this appeal, first and second degree murder are indistinguishable except that first degree murder requires premeditation.

¶ 12 According to the definition adopted by the legislature,

"[p]remeditation" means 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 any length of time to permit reflection. Proof of actual reflection is not required, but 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) (emphasis added).4

¶ 13 The question before us is whether this definition of premeditation abolishes the requirement of actual reflection altogether, whether it eliminates the requirement of direct proof of actual reflection, or whether it substitutes for the necessary proof of actual reflection the mere passage of enough time to permit reflection. The State asserts the third interpretation, that the legislature intended to relieve the State of the burden of proving a defendant's hidden thought processes, and that this definition of premeditation establishes that the passage of time may serve as a proxy for reflection. The court of appeals agreed with this interpretation.

¶ 14 Thompson maintains that reducing premeditation to the mere passage of time renders the statute vague and unenforceable because courts have held that actual reflection can occur as quickly as "successive thoughts of the mind." E.g., Macias v. State, 36 Ariz. 140, 150, 283 P. 711, 715 (1929). Thus, he argues and the court of appeals agreed, the difference between first and second degree murder has been eliminated.

¶ 15 Although the legislature may classify crimes as it sees fit, it must do so in a way that is not arbitrary or capricious. State v. Leeman, 119 Ariz. 459, 462, 581 P.2d 693, 696 (1978). Laws must provide explicit standards for those charged with enforcing them and may not "impermissibly delegate[ ] basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis." Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-09, 92 S.Ct. 2294, 2299, 33 L.Ed.2d 222 (1972); see also Giaccio v. Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399, 402-03, 86 S.Ct. 518, 520-21, 15 L.Ed.2d 447 (1966) (stating that "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"). Accordingly, for the first degree murder statute to be constitutional, the definition of premeditation must provide a meaningful distinction between first and second degree murder. We turn now to a review of how premeditation has provided that distinction in Arizona.

A. History of the First Degree Murder Statute in Arizona

¶ 16 For most of this state's history, first degree murder explicitly required proof of "premeditation," or actual reflection by the defendant. See Macias, 36 Ariz. at 149, 283 P. at 714-15 ("In order that a killing shall be murder in the first degree ... it must be shown that a plan to murder was formed after the matter had been made a subject of deliberation and reflection...."); State v. Magby, 113 Ariz. 345, 352, 554 P.2d 1272, 1279 (1976) (upholding a jury instruction that read "[i]n order to find a deliberate and premeditated killing you must find more reflection on the part of the defendant than is involved in the mere formation of the specific intent to kill").

¶ 17 Because premeditation involves a defendant's thought processes, the question arose how to prove that a defendant had reflected on the decision to kill. Courts responded by allowing the issue to be...

To continue reading

Request your trial
99 cases
  • State v. Reaves
    • United States
    • Arizona Court of Appeals
    • February 16, 2022
    ...the state must go beyond merely proving time passed between the formation of an intent to kill and the act of killing. See State v. Thompson , 204 Ariz. 471, ¶¶ 27, 29, 31, 65 P.3d 420 (2004) (construing premeditation statute, A.R.S. § 13-1101(1), as requiring proof of reflection but allowi......
  • State v. Nelson
    • United States
    • Arizona Supreme Court
    • April 12, 2012
    ...effect of a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.A.R.S. § 13–1101(1). As we made clear in State v. Thompson, 204 Ariz. 471, 478 ¶ 27, 65 P.3d 420, 427, “the legislature did not intend to eliminate the requirement of reflection altogether or to allow the state to substitute the mere passing of ......
  • State v. Payne
    • United States
    • Arizona Supreme Court
    • November 21, 2013
    ...intention or knowledge precedes the killing by any length of time to permit reflection.” State v. Thompson, 204 Ariz. 471, 475 ¶ 12, 65 P.3d 420, 424 (2003) (quoting A.R.S. § 13–1101(1)). ¶ 95 Sufficient evidence in this case supports the jury's finding that Payne intentionally abused his c......
  • State v. Bernhardt
    • United States
    • Kansas Supreme Court
    • May 27, 2016
    ...can form. He relies on our decision in State v. Gunby , 282 Kan. 39, 144 P.3d 647 (2006), and two Arizona cases, State v. Thompson , 204 Ariz. 471, 65 P.3d 420 (2003), and State v. Guerra , 161 Ariz. 289, 778 P.2d 1185 (1989), for the general proposition that premeditation cannot be formed ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3 books & journal articles
  • § 31.03 Murder: Intent to Kill
    • United States
    • Carolina Academic Press Understanding Criminal Law (CAP) 2022 Title Chapter 31 Criminal Homicide
    • Invalid date
    ...it is premeditated. This would seem to permit premeditation based on a split second or two of prior thought.[75] State v. Thompson, 65 P.3d 420, 427 (Ariz. 2003); see also People v. Plummer, 581 N.W.2d 753, 757 (Mich. Ct. App. 1998) ("To speak of premeditation and deliberation being instant......
  • § 31.03 MURDER: INTENT TO KILL
    • United States
    • Carolina Academic Press Understanding Criminal Law (CAP) 2018 Title Chapter 31 Criminal Homicide
    • Invalid date
    ...it is premeditated. This would seem to permit premeditation based on a split second or two of prior thought.[75] . State v. Thompson, 65 P.3d 420, 427 (Ariz. 2003); see also People v. Plummer, 581 N.W.2d 753, 757 (Mich. Ct. App. 1998) ("To speak of premeditation and deliberation being insta......
  • TABLE OF CASES
    • United States
    • Carolina Academic Press Understanding Criminal Law (CAP) 2018 Title Table of Cases
    • Invalid date
    ...Thomas, State v., 468 N.E.2d 763 (Ohio Ct. App. 1983), 227 Thomas, United States v., 116 F.3d 606 (2d Cir. 1997), 9 Thompson, State v., 65 P.3d 420 (Ariz. 2003), 484 Thompson, State v., 792 P.2d 1103 (Mont. 1990), 549 Thompson, State v., 884 P.2d 574 (Or. Ct. App. 1994), 568 Thorp, State v.......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT