Prosecutor’s misstatements concerning the interplay between voluntary intoxication and intent in a first degree murder trial were forfeited and harmless. Forrest shot his wife in the head then moved her body into a bath tub and disemboweled her. He documented the process and his thoughts in writing. His defenses were voluntary intoxication and heat of passion. The jury convicted him of first degree murder. He appealed, arguing, among other things, that the prosecutor committed misconduct during closing argument by misstating the law concerning the impact of voluntary intoxication. Held: Affirmed. As a threshold matter, Forrest forfeited the contention because he failed to object to the prosecutor’s misstatements. But even if not forfeited, any error was harmless. The prosecutor misstated the law by arguing that the jury could only consider voluntary intoxication on Forrest’s capacity to premeditate, deliberate, and harbor express malice even though it is also admissible on the issue of whether a defendant formed the requisite intent to kill. But the trial court had correctly instructed the jury and informed the jury that it must follow the court’s instructions in the event of a conflict between the attorneys’ arguments and the instructions. Furthermore, the written entries Forrest made describing his actions were overwhelming evidence that he had the requisite mental state for first degree murder. Any misstatements were thus harmless.
Prosecutor’s misstatements concerning the heat of passion standard were also harmless. During closing rebuttal the prosecutor said that the relevant inquiry for determining if heat of passion applied was whether a reasonable person in Forrest’s position would have shot his wife in the head. On appeal, Forrest argued that the prosecutor’s argument misstated the heat of passion standard. The Court of Appeal agreed, but found the error harmless. In People v. Beltran (2013) 56 Cal.4th 935, the Supreme Court explained that the relevant inquiry is not whether a reasonable person would have been provoked to act in the exact same way as the defendant, but whether a reasonable person would have been provoked to the point of acting rashly in any manner. While the prosecutor’s closing rebuttal was error under Beltran, the court found that the comments did not so infect the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process. Nor did the misstatements require reversal under state law. The jury had been correctly instructed on the heat of passion standard and it is presumed that they followed the instructions. Furthermore, the jury found that Forrest acted with premeditation and deliberation. Since that is “manifestly inconsistent” with acting in the heat of passion, any error was “undeniably harmless.”
Trial court’s instruction that voluntary manslaughter was a general intent crime was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial court instructed Forrest’s jury “The following crime and allegations require general criminal intent: voluntary manslaughter.” On appeal, Forrest argued that the misinstruction was a prejudicial violation of due process. The Court of Appeal disagreed. Voluntary manslaughter requires that the defendant act with a specific mental state: either an intent to kill or a conscious disregard for life. However, the trial court went on to properly instruct the jury on the requisite mental state for voluntary manslaughter. “The correctness of jury instructions is to be determined from the entire charge of the court, not from a consideration of parts of an instruction or from a particular instruction.” (People v. Carrington (2009) 47 Cal.4th 145, 192.) Furthermore, the fact the jury found Forrest acted with the specific mental state of premeditation and deliberation renders any error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B261130.PDF