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Duress Rejected as Motive for Murder

July 30, 2002|JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a decision applauded by gang prosecutors, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday that fear for one's life does not justify killing an innocent person.

" 'The person threatened with his own demise ought rather to die himself, than escape by the murder of an innocent,' " the high court ruled, quoting 19th century common law commentator William Blackstone.

The justices' ruling rejects a duress rule adopted by New York, Texas and other states, as well as by most European countries.

Monday's ruling stems from the 1994 murder of Margaret Armstrong in a camp near Eureka. In May 1999, Robert Neal Anderson was found guilty in her slaying. He appealed, contending that he was forced to help commit the crime by his co-defendant, Ron Kiern, who threatened his life.

"It confirms what we have always believed had been the law in California," said Moona Nandi, the deputy attorney general who represented the state in the appeal.

The opinion, with one justice dissenting, states that a person should choose to resist rather than kill, and seek an alternative to murder.

That point is especially important because it will stop gang members and terrorists from escaping criminal liability when claiming coercion led to murder, Nandi said.

"If duress is recognized as a defense to the killing of innocents, then a street or prison gang need only create an internal reign of terror and murder can be justified," according to the opinion.

Robert Pugsley, professor of criminal law at Southwestern University School of Law, agreed that the decision is not a departure from existing law, but may have unfortunate ramifications.

"It puts the person who's claiming duress in a tragic situation, especially if the threatener carries out on his threat," Pugsley said. "It's a difficult situation, but I don't see how the law could concede on that point."

The opinion was written by state Supreme Court Justice Ming W. Chin. The dissenter was Justice Joyce Kennard, who held that the duress should be a potential defense in noncapital murder. Kennard said Anderson had failed to prove his life was in danger.

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