Decision: State v. Houston

July 17th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in State v. Houston (No. 98,373), an appeal of a murder conviction. In a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Lawton Nuss, the Court upheld Michael Houston Sr’s conviction for the second-degree murder of Joshua Johnson.

The Houston and Johnson families who lived in KCK became involved in a long running feud following Houston’s having a sexual relationship with Johnson’s girlfriend. Over time many incidents took place between the two men, and Johnson attacked members of Houston’s family. One day, in 2003, Houston was driving his car and had to swerve out of the way of Johnson’s car door as it opened. The pair had nearly come to blows earlier that day, and Houston jumped out of his vehicle armed with a 12ga shotgun. Johnson was exiting his vehicle. Houston shot him dead. At trial (though not in his initial police statement) Houston maintained that Johnson had been reaching for what he believed to be a weapon and that he had shot him in self defense. Houston was convicted of second-degree intentional murder.

On appeal, Houston raised a number of issues. On most of these, the Kansas Supreme Court adopts the ruling in the case of the Court of Appeals, namely that:

  • Houston was not prevented from presenting his theory of self-defense by the exclusion of evidence about Johnson attacking his family members, since evidence of his having done that was introduced anyway by various witnesses and those facts did not speak to Houston’s state of mind when he shot Johnson. In contrast, Houston had been able to enter evidence about Johnson’s previously threatening him.
  • The Prosecutor did not commit misconduct during a chain of questions during which Houston mentioned he had been evaluated on his mental condition at Larned State Hospital.
  • Houston had sought to suppress evidence that Johnson knew Houston had a gun. His pre-trial motion was rejected. The Court held that the issue was not properly preserved for appeal since no objection was made at the time the evidence was actually introduced, which is required.
  • Houston’s Apprendi claim was rejected.

In addition to the above the Kansas Supreme Court also rejected Houston’s assertion that the jury should have been presented with the option of convicting him of the lesser-included offense of Involuntary Manslaughter. Houston’s theory for this was that he had acted lawfully in self defense but used excessive force, and had therefore not intended to kill Johnson. In its ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court adopted a different tack to the Court of Appeals finding that under the circumstances no rational jury could have convicted him of involuntary manslaughter since there was no possibility that in firing his gun at close quarters he had not formed an intent to kill Johnson. In making this ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court also made it clear that loose wording in some recent opinions did not reflect any move away from the standard that a lesser included instruction is not needed when a jury could not reasonably convict a defendant of the crime. That standard was reaffirmed in this case.

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