Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Opinion Digests / Criminal Practice / Criminal Practice – Voluntary Manslaughter – Automatism Defense – Hypoglycemia

Criminal Practice – Voluntary Manslaughter – Automatism Defense – Hypoglycemia

State v. Coleman (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-213-17, 15 pp.) (Richard Dietz, J.) Appealed from Clay County Superior Court (J. Thomas Davis, J.) N.C. App.

Holding: The trial court acted well within its discretion when it allowed the state’s expert to testify that, since defendant did not suffer from amnesia when he shot his wife, he was not in a state of automatism.

We find no error in defendant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter.

The elements of voluntary manslaughter are that (1) the defendant killed the victim by an intentional and unlawful act and (2) the defendant’s act was the proximate cause of the victim’s death; therefore, the state was not required to prove that defendant acted in the heat of passion.

The state presented evidence that defendant shot his wife and admitted that he shot her. His sole defense was that he did not act voluntarily due to his low blood sugar, which placed him in a state of automatism.

The state presented admissible expert testimony that defendant was not in a state of automatism when he shot his wife. Thus, there was substantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could reject defendant automatism defense and conclude that he intentionally shot and killed his wife — the only elements necessary to prove voluntary manslaughter. Accordingly, the trial court properly denied defendant’s motion for a directed verdict.

Where defendant’s expert earned large sums of money by testifying solely on behalf of criminal defendants, a reasonable jury could infer that the expert had an incentive to render opinions favorable to the criminal defendants who employ him. The fact that an expert witness may have a motive to testify favorably for the party calling him is a fact of consequence to the jury’s assessment of that witness’s credibility. Thus, the trial court did not err in overruling defendant’s objection to the state’s questioning his expert about the amount of fees he received for testifying in other, unrelated criminal cases.

The state’s expert, endocrinologist Dr. Warner Burch, testified that defendant’s actions were “not caused by automatism due to hypoglycemia. Automatism due to hypoglycemia is possible but not probable given the bulk of the evidence.” Dr. Burch testified that he reached this opinion largely because defendant did not experience any amnesia which, in Dr. Burch’s experience, is one of the characteristic features of automatism caused by hypoglycemia.

Defendant argues that this testimony, while couched as expert medical testimony, is merely speculation about defendant’s state of mind at the time of the shooting. We disagree.

The trial court properly found that Dr. Burch was an expert in the signs and symptoms that accompany automatism caused by hypoglycemia and that his testimony was based on sufficient data and facts using “well documented and accepted principles and methods in the field of endocrinology.”

Applying that expertise, Dr. Burch testified that, in his opinion, defendant was not in a state of automatism when he shot his wife because he did not suffer from amnesia, a key characteristic of the condition. The trial court acted well within its discretion in admitting this expert testimony.

There was no evidence at trial suggesting that defendant did not intend to shoot his wife. Once the jury rejected his defense of automatism, there was no evidence suggesting the shooting was an accident. Accordingly, we find no error in the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter.

No error.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *