Decision: State v. Hoffman

January 30th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in State v. Hoffman (No. 98,394). In an opinion joined by 7 others Justice Rosen affirmed Eric Hoffman’s felony murder and aggravated battery convictions for the killing in October 2005 of Stacy Morton. Justice Johnson concurred in the result, but wrote separately to reiterate an objection he has to part of the Court’s lesser included offences jurisprudence. Note: this case was argued while Chief Justice McFarland was still a member of the court. She was recused from the case and her place taken by Judge Stephen Hill of the Court of Appeals.

Hoffman and a friend, Aaron Wood, had fallen out with Stacy Morton over claims that Morton had told Wood’s fiancee that Wood was cheating on her. In September 2005 the three men were in a fight. In October 2005 Wood and Hoffman were walking past Morton’s house when Morton invited them in. While inside the house Hoffman and Wood beat Morton, Hoffman with brass knuckles. The two men then left and went to a bar, where they drank and took meth. Afterwards they returned to Morton’s house, cut the telephone line and broke in through the kitchen. There they picked up a kitchen knife, and used it and their own knives to stab Morton multiple times. Both men stabbed Morton, who died soon after.

Hoffman and Wood were both convicted of felony murder. Hoffman appealed his conviction on the grounds that the jury should have been instructed on a lesser included offense that they could convict him on in place of felony murder, since he argued that the jury might have found that he entered the house with the intention to commit only simple battery (a misdemeanor). The court rejected this argument. In felony murder cases the trial court only needs to instruct on a lesser included offense when the evidence of the underlying felony is weak or inconclusive. This is because felony murder stems from a death during the commission of a crime and the underlying crime provides the necessary intent to secure the murder conviction. The court held that there was nothing weak or inconclusive about the evidence of Hoffman’s underlying crime of aggravated burglary.

The court also rejected Hoffman’s arguments that the coroners report did not prove whether Morton died as a result of the first beating (where Hoffman was invited into the house and therefore it would not be felony murder) or the second, and Hoffman’s argument that the jury should not have been shown autopsy photos. The Court held that since Morton was alive at the time of the second attack, no matter what would have happened without it, it was directly responsible for his death. Autopsy photos were admissable as they met part of the State’s burden to prove all the elements of its case, namely the cause of death.

The Court therefore affirmed Hoffman’s conviction and life sentence.

Justice Johnson concurred. He objects to the rule that felony murder lesser included offences be based on the evidence of the underlying crime. He would base the rules around that instruction on the evidence of the alternative crime. In this case, he dispenses with that possibility in one line since the definition of simple battery is touching “in a rude, insulting, or angry manner”, and no credible jury would have believed that was all he intended when he entered the house the second time. Johnson wrote more fully about his position in State v. Jones (2008), which we covered here.

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