United States v. Lasley

Decision Date12 August 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15-1738,15-1738
Citation832 F.3d 910
Parties United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee v. Gordon Lasley, Jr., Defendant-Appellant
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

832 F.3d 910

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee
Gordon Lasley, Jr., Defendant-Appellant

No. 15-1738

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit.

Submitted: December 18, 2015
Filed: August 12, 2016
Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied September 15, 2016*

Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellant was Heather Quick, AFPD, of Cedar Rapids, IA. The following attorney(s) appeared on the appellant brief; John P. Messina, AFPD, of Des Moines, IA.

Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellee was C. J. Williams, AUSA, of Cedar Rapids, IA. The following attorney(s) appeared on the appellee brief; Anthony Morfitt, AUSA, of Cedar Rapids, IA.

Before WOLLMAN, BRIGHT, and LOKEN, Circuit Judges.

LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

After a lengthy trial, a jury convicted Gordon Lasley, Jr., of the second-degree murder of his parents in Indian country. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1111, 1153. The district court1 imposed two consecutive life sentences, the top of Lasley's advisory guidelines sentencing range. Lasley appeals his conviction and sentence, arguing the court erred by refusing to instruct on the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter, and by imposing a substantively unreasonable sentence. We affirm.

832 F.3d 912

I. Background

The facts relevant to the issues on appeal are undisputed. At the time of the murders, Lasley was twenty-five years old, living in the basement of his parents' home in the Iowa Meskwaki Settlement. His girlfriend, Antonia, and their three children lived apart from Lasley, but all five gathered at the parents' home on the evening of February 5, 2014. Antonia and Lasley smoked marijuana in the basement; Lasley's parents remained upstairs. Around 8:30 p.m., Antonia left with two of the children, leaving one daughter behind. Antonia testified that, when she left, Lasley seemed “happy” and “was listening to pow-wow music and dancing.”

At some point during the next hour, Lasley went upstairs and killed his parents, using a three-foot-long machete. He first killed his father by striking him three times with the machete, inflicting major wounds. Crime scene evidence indicated his father struggled and tried to flee. Lasley then turned on his mother, who saw him kill his father. Lasley chased her through the house, striking her with the machete at least six times in the head, neck, and chest. Both parents bled to death. In the next hour, Lasley had several rambling phone conversations with Antonia, saying, among other things: “Are you afraid to die?”; “Just go to the light”; “I killed my mom and dad”; “We're free. We're saved”; and “My mom and dad raised me wrong. The white man's religion is wrong.” He also said he told his parents there were sexually transmitted diseases on the settlement, and his father responded, “it was right here.” Lasley then drove to his brother's home and told him, “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. ... I killed mom and dad.”

Lasley was tried on two counts of first-degree murder. His primary defense was not guilty by reason of insanity. Two defense experts offered different theories of insanity. One testified that Lasley suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, distorting his perception of reality. The other testified that Lasley's insanity stemmed from a delusional disorder and a psychotic episode on the night of the murders; he opined that Lasley was under the delusion that his parents had put “bad medicine” on him, causing him to have a sexually transmitted disease, and the only way to remove the bad medicine was to kill his parents. In rebuttal, a government expert testified that Lasley was sane at the time of the murders and that his belief in bad medicine was a shared cultural belief, not a delusion. The government also called lay witnesses who testified to Native American culture and Lasley's mental health.

II. The Jury Instruction Issue

Prior to trial, Lasley submitted proposed jury instructions on the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter. At the close of the evidence, after an off-the-record discussion with counsel, the court declined to give involuntary manslaughter instructions. During closing argument, defense counsel reviewed the conflicting expert testimony in detail and urged the jury to find Lasley not guilty by reason of insanity of all first and second degree murder charges. The jury rejected the insanity defense, found Lasley guilty of the second-degree murder of both parents, and acquitted him of first-degree murder.

On appeal, Lasley argues the district court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on the offense of involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is a lesser-included offense of murder. United States v. One Star, 979 F.2d 1319, 1321 (8th Cir. 1992). A defendant is entitled to a properly requested lesser-included offense instruction “if the evidence would permit a jury rationally to find him guilty of the lesser offense and acquit him of the greater.”

832 F.3d 913

Keeble v. United States, 412 U.S. 205, 208, 93 S.Ct. 1993, 36 L.Ed.2d 844 (1973). We review the district court's decision not to instruct on involuntary manslaughter for abuse of discretion. See United States v. Martin, 777 F.3d 984, 997 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 1882, 191 L.Ed.2d 753 (2015).

Involuntary manslaughter is “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice ... [i]n the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act which might produce death.” 18 U.S.C. § 1112(a). When Lasley repeatedly slashed his parents with a three-foot-long machete, he committed the felony of assault with a dangerous weapon. See 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(3). He made no claim that he accidentally stabbed his parents. On this evidentiary record, a rational jury could not have acquitted Lasley of first- and second-degree murder and convicted him of involuntary manslaughter. See United States v. Elk, 658 F.2d 644, 649–50 (8th Cir. 1981) ; United States v. Lincoln, 630 F.2d 1313, 1320 (8th Cir. 1980) ; United States v. Wallette, 580 F.2d 335, 338–39 (8th Cir. 1978).

“The requisite mental state for involuntary manslaughter is ‘gross' or ‘criminal’ negligence ... short of the extreme recklessness, or malice required for murder.” One Star, 979 F.2d at 1321. Lasley argues the jury could have found that he acted without the malice aforethought that is an element of murder, see 18 U.S.C. § 1111(a), because, while not legally insane, “he suffered from a significant mental impairment at the time of the killings.” He cites no supporting authority for this theory, and it is unsound as a matter of law. The Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 17(a), provides that insanity is an affirmative defense to any federal prosecution, but “[m]ental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense.” This statute as uniformly construed precludes a diminished capacity defense to general intent crimes such as second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. See United States v. Frank, 472 Fed.Appx. 431, 432 (9th Cir. 2012) ; United States v. Pohlot, 827 F.2d 889, 907 (3d Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1011, 108 S.Ct. 710, 98 L.Ed.2d 660 (1988) ; see generally Clark v. Arizona, 548 U.S. 735, 126 S.Ct. 2709, 165 L.Ed.2d 842 (2006). Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to instruct the jury on involuntary manslaughter.

III. The Sentencing Issue

At sentencing, the district court determined that Lasley's advisory guidelines sentencing range was 360 months to life in prison. After considering the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) sentencing factors, the court determined that consecutive life sentences for each murder was “sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing.” Lasley argues the court imposed a substantively unreasonable sentence. We review the substantive reasonableness of a sentence under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard. United States v. Boneshirt, 662 F.3d 509, 517 (8th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 1613, 182 L.Ed.2d 217 (2012).

The district court articulated many reasons for imposing a life sentence. First, the court noted that a life sentence was within the guidelines range had Lasley murdered one parent. But he murdered both parents, and the court found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the killings were premeditated murder. Second, the court explained that Lasley “brutally murdered” his fleeing parents in view of his young daughter, and there was “no evidence of any provocation that would cause a reasonable person to murder these parents.” Third, consistent with past decisions, the

832 F.3d 914

court viewed Lasley's criminal history—twenty-six convictions by age twenty-six—as evidence of his disrespect for authority. See United States v. Walking Eagle, 553 F.3d 654, 657–58 (8th Cir. 2009). Fourth, the court concluded that Lasley “poses a substantial risk to the public safety” given his anger and past violence, which included assault convictions, repeated abuse of his girlfriend, and the slaying of his parents. The court explicitly considered mitigating...

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