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Opinion Date: 08/23/2012
e-Journal Date: 09/14/2012
Full Text Opinion

Practice Area(s):   Criminal Law

Issues: Sufficiency of the evidence to support the defendant's second-degree murder conviction; People v. Fisher; In re Winship; People v. Hawkins; People v. McRunels; The elements of second-degree murder; People v. McMullan; People v. Riddle; People v. Tims; "Malice"; People v. Goecke; People v. Carines; People v. Mills; People v. Hicks; Evidence of "opportunity"; People v. Unger; "Consciousness of guilt"; People v. Kowalski; Attempting to "influence" a witness; People v. Mock; "Motive"; People v. Kuhn; Double jeopardy; People v. Watson
Court: Michigan Court of Appeals (Unpublished)
Case Name: People v. Nelson
e-Journal Number: 52533
Judge(s): Per Curiam – Beckering, Owens, and Shapiro

Holding that the evidence was insufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was the one who caused the victim's (T) death and that he acted with malice, the court reversed his second-degree murder conviction. T disappeared in 1980. She has not been seen or heard from since. Her body has not been found. While she is presumed dead, no one has come forward as a witness to her death or the disposal of her body. There was no physical evidence as to the manner of her death, and no one has admitted responsibility for her disappearance or death. The investigation into T's disappearance continued for nearly 25 years and developed various suspects but did not initially focus on defendant. Several investigators were involved over the years, and defendant was interviewed numerous times. He initially denied having any connection to T on the night that she disappeared. However, he eventually admitted that he was alone with T for some time that night and provided inconsistent versions of the events of that night. In 2004, the police arrested defendant on the charge of open murder. He was convicted of second-degree murder after a two-day bench trial. The court concluded that this case was "strikingly similar" to Fisher. "In both cases, a body was never found and there were no witnesses to either a killing or the disposal of a body." Further, there was no physical evidence linking either defendant to either woman's death, and neither defendant confessed. The evidence presented by the prosecution in both Fisher and this case "was limited to evidence of opportunity, motive, and various forms of evidence demonstrating consciousness of guilt." The court concluded that while the evidence in this case permitted "the reasonable inference" that defendant was involved in T's disappearance or death, it did not permit the reasonable inference that he caused T's death. Several witnesses testified about defendant's racism toward African-Americans and that he was with T shortly before she disappeared. This evidence established that he had both a motive and an opportunity to kill T. "Although not dispositive of causation, evidence of opportunity is logically relevant in a prosecution for murder" and supported an inference that defendant was involved in T's disappearance or death. The prosecution also presented evidence showing defendant's "consciousness of guilt." He made inconsistent statements after T's disappearance about both his relationship with her and the night she disappeared. He also made factual assertions about that night that could not have occurred. The court concluded that his consciousness of guilt was also illustrated by evidence of his conduct after T disappeared. "Particularly, he stopped driving his blue pickup truck, concealed it in his backyard with firewood, and ultimately sold it." However, under Fisher, "the evidence of causation in this case is too tenuous to find beyond a reasonable doubt" that defendant caused T's death. The evidence of opportunity was "of the same caliber in both cases." However, the evidence of motive in Fisher was stronger (the defendant and the victim were married and getting a divorce, and he had subjected her to domestic violence). Here, the only evidence of motive was defendant's racism, a motive concerning a class of people in general. The court concluded that "mere consciousness of guilt does not demonstrate that defendant committed an act with malice." Reversed and remanded for entry of an acquittal.

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