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People v. Oros

Supreme Court of Michigan

July 5, 2018

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CHRISTOPHER ALLAN OROS, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued on application for leave to appeal March 7, 2018.

          Chief Justice: Stephen J. Markman Justices: Brian K. Zahra Bridget M. McCormack David F. Viviano Richard H. Bernstein Kurtis T. Wilder Elizabeth T. Clement

         Syllabus

         Christopher A. Oros was convicted following a jury trial in the Kalamazoo Circuit Court of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a), first-degree felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(b), first-degree arson, MCL 750.72, second-degree home invasion, MCL 750.110a(3), and escape while awaiting trial, MCL 750.197(2). The trial court, Paul J. Bridenstine, J., sentenced defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for his first-degree premeditated and felony murder convictions, 25 to 40 years' imprisonment for his first-degree arson conviction, 10 to 22½ years' imprisonment for his second-degree home invasion conviction, and 2 to 6 years' imprisonment for his escape while awaiting trial conviction. Defendant appealed as of right his first-degree premeditated murder conviction in the Court of Appeals, arguing that insufficient evidence existed to sustain his jury conviction because the prosecution failed to present at trial any evidence from which the jury could reasonably find that he acted with premeditation and deliberation. In a published per curiam opinion issued June 8, 2017, the Court of Appeals, Stephens, P.J., and Shapiro and Gadola, JJ., held that there was insufficient evidence to sustain defendant's first-degree premeditated murder jury conviction and reduced his conviction to second-degree murder. 320 Mich.App. 146 (2017). The Court of Appeals applied the factors set forth in People v Schollaert, 194 Mich.App. 158 (1992), and explained that it found the circumstances surrounding the killing as the most significant factor. The Court of Appeals rejected the prosecution's argument that defendant had adequate time to consciously reconsider his actions in a "second look," believing that People v Hoffmeister, 394 Mich. 155 (1975), excluded the notion that premeditation could be formed between successive stab wounds. Therefore, the Court of Appeals vacated defendant's first-degree premeditated murder conviction, imposed a second-degree murder conviction, and ordered a remand to the trial court for sentencing as to that offense. The prosecution sought leave to appeal, and the Supreme Court ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant the application or take other action. 501 Mich. 883 (2017).

         In an opinion by Justice Wilder, joined by Chief Justice Markman and Justices Zahra, Bernstein, and Clement, the Supreme Court, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, held:

         Given the record evidence presented at defendant's trial, a reasonable juror could have found that the killing was committed with premeditation and deliberation. Defendant's first-degree premeditated murder conviction and sentence must be reinstated.

         1. When considering a sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenge, a reviewing court is required to draw all reasonable inferences and make credibility choices in support of the jury verdict. It is for the trier of fact, not the appellate court, to determine what inferences may be fairly drawn from the evidence and to determine the weight to be accorded those inferences. To secure a conviction of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a), the prosecution must establish beyond a reasonable doubt a murder perpetrated by means of poison, lying in wait, or any other willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing. The elements of first-degree murder are (1) the intentional killing of a human (2) with premeditation and deliberation. To premeditate is to think about beforehand; to deliberate is to measure and evaluate the major facets of a choice or problem.

         2. The elements of premeditation and deliberation may be established by an interval of time between the initial homicidal thought and ultimate action, which would allow a reasonable person time to subject the nature of his or her action to a "second look." That is, some time span between the initial homicidal intent and ultimate action is necessary to establish premeditation and deliberation, but it is within the province of the fact-finder to determine whether there was sufficient time for a reasonable person to subject his or her action to a second look. What constitutes sufficient evidence to support the elements of premeditation and deliberation may vary from case to case because the factual circumstances will vary, but the ultimate answer may be resolved in light of the entire factual record introduced at trial and determining whether reasonable inferences may be made to support the fact-finder's verdict.

         3. In this case, a rational trier of fact had sufficient evidence from which to draw reasonable inferences that defendant acted with premeditation and deliberation. The prosecution presented evidence that directly conflicted with defendant's description of what transpired in the apartment, including that defendant did not have any head injuries consistent with his claim that the victim struck him over the head with a coffee mug and that shattered pieces of the coffee mug collected at the scene were DNA tested, revealing the presence of the victim's blood and hair-not defendant's. The jury chose to resolve the conflicting evidence in favor of the prosecution, and on appellate review the evidence contradicting defendant's version of the crime must be considered in a light most favorable to the prosecution, with every reasonable inference viewed in favor of the jury verdict. Evidence of defendant's conflicting statements and that he was the initial aggressor allowed the jury to infer that he acted without provocation and in a cool state of mind rather than on impulse when his assaultive conduct escalated from striking the victim in the head with a coffee mug to gaining control of a kitchen knife, to punching the victim in the face, to finally stabbing the victim 29 times to her death. An inference of each element of premeditation and deliberation could be drawn from this evidence-that is, defendant thought about killing the victim before proceeding to kill the victim, and defendant measured and evaluated his choices before proceeding to kill the victim.

         4. By defendant's own admission, these acts were distinct and separate from one another. While it was not possible to pinpoint the exact moment defendant thought about killing the victim and measured and evaluated his choices, the inference could be drawn that his decision to kill the victim and his evaluation of his options arose separately before he obtained a lethal weapon. It was possible that defendant could have thought about the killing before first striking the victim over the head with a coffee mug or when he punched the victim in the face. Either way, both acts supported the inference that defendant had and took time for reflection before proceeding to stab the victim because defendant had to think about obtaining the knife-a lethal weapon-to accomplish his desired act of killing the victim. Additionally, the prosecution argued that defendant may have retrieved the knife from the victim's kitchen, while defendant told the police that he obtained the knife from the victim herself after struggling with her for it; either way, a period of time between the initial homicidal intent and the ultimate killing existed, during which defendant could have taken a "second look." Likewise, it was reasonable to infer that defendant had the opportunity for a "second look" during the period of time that elapsed when he flipped the victim over to position her facedown on the floor, climbed onto her back, and then continued to stab her. It took thought and reflection to flip the victim over, which permitted an inference that defendant acted with both premeditation and deliberation. Moreover, the location and depth of the victim's stab wounds supported an inference that defendant thought about, measured, and evaluated his options; many of the stab wounds were anywhere from 2 to 5 inches deep, which would indicate the amount of force used to not only plunge the knife into the victim's body, but also to retract it. It was reasonable for a juror to infer that sufficient time existed between each stab wound to allow defendant the opportunity to take a "second look," and therefore it was reasonable for a juror to infer that the killing was committed with premeditation and deliberation. Accordingly, the jury had sufficient evidence from which it could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, and the Court of Appeals erred when it improperly usurped the role of the fact-finder and misapplied this Court's opinion in Hoffmeister. This holding is consistent with Hoffmeister because the sheer number of stab wounds alone did not establish the elements of premeditation and deliberation; rather, the jury could have reasonably inferred and found from the factual record-separate and distinct from the sheer number of stab wounds alone-that defendant had an opportunity to subject his actions to a "second look" and therefore acted with premeditation and deliberation.

         Part II of the Court of Appeals' opinion reversed; defendant's first-degree premeditated murder conviction and sentence reinstated.

         Justice McCormack, joined by Justice Viviano, dissenting, would have affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals because there was insufficient evidence for a rational trier of fact to infer proof beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant's decision to kill the victim was premeditated and deliberated. The majority treated premeditation, deliberation, and intent to kill as fungible-thereby collapsing the distinction between first- and second-degree murder-and lost sight of the burden of proof when it held that the possibility that defendant could have premeditated and deliberated is all that is required. While a jury can make reasonable inferences to arrive at a verdict, the prosecution must produce sufficient evidence to make the jury's inferences reasonable; the inferences must have support in the record and cannot be arrived at by mere speculation. A deliberate and premeditated killing requires proof beyond merely thinking twice-the prosecutor must show that the perpetrator's thought process had the right timing (premeditated) and was of the right quality (deliberate). Time to take a second look is necessary, but not sufficient, for a finding of premeditation and deliberation. Sufficient opportunity to take a second look is better thought of as a precondition for a finding of premeditation and deliberation: the prosecution must prove first that there was sufficient time to allow the defendant to take a "second look" after forming the intent to kill and, second, that the defendant did, in fact, premeditate before acting on the intent to kill. In short, premeditation requires some passage of time, but the passage of time does not prove premeditation, much less deliberation. In this case, the gruesome physical evidence allowed the jury to infer a single fact-that the defendant might have had sufficient time to take a second look. But beyond that, the jury could only speculate between two possibilities: either the defendant did premeditate and deliberate, or he did not. Because that determination was no better than a coin flip, the jury could not find proof beyond a reasonable doubt of premeditation and deliberation. Additionally, by announcing that the possibility of premeditation and deliberation is all that is required, the majority effectively overruled Hoffmeister, which held that evidence is insufficient when it merely leaves open the possibility of premeditation and deliberation. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required for every element of a crime, and in this case there was no basis in the evidence for a rational trier of fact to infer proof beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant's decision to kill the victim was premeditated and deliberated.

         BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

          OPINION

          Wilder, J.

         This case involves an issue germane to every criminal trial-that is, whether sufficient evidence exists to support a defendant's conviction. In particular, the question before us is whether sufficient evidence exists to support defendant's jury conviction of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a). Defendant does not dispute that he intended to kill the victim, Marie McMillan, when he stabbed her 29 times; rather, he argues that insufficient proofs were presented at trial with regard to the elements of premeditation and deliberation to sustain his conviction. The Court of Appeals agreed, concluding that there was insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation, and therefore reduced defendant's first-degree premeditated murder conviction to second-degree murder.

         A thorough review of the record requires a contrary result. We hold that the Court of Appeals erred when it improperly usurped the role of the fact-finder and misapplied this Court's opinion in People v Hoffmeister, 394 Mich. 155; 229 N.W.2d 305 (1975). In lieu of granting leave to appeal, we reverse Part II of the Court Appeals opinion and hold that, based on the record evidence presented at defendant's trial, a reasonable juror could have found that the killing was committed with premeditation and deliberation. Defendant's first-degree premeditated murder conviction and sentence must be reinstated.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On November 22, 2014, defendant went door-to-door targeting the residents of Clayborne Court Apartments in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in an attempt to solicit money. Defendant's ruse was that his girlfriend had left him without access to his vehicle, debit card, or cell phone. Defendant asked each resident if he could use their phone so that he could contact his girlfriend. If allowed to do so, defendant would actually place a call to his own cell phone, which was located inside his vehicle where no one was available to answer it. After an "unsuccessful" call, defendant would directly or indirectly solicit money from each resident, claiming that he needed gas money to get to work. According to one resident, the solicitation started out passive, but quickly turned aggressive. Another resident testified that he felt uncomfortable because he sensed defendant was casing his apartment.

         Defendant used this same subterfuge to gain access to the victim's apartment. During the police investigative interview, defendant admitted that he was able to persuade the victim to let him inside the apartment, and once inside, he used the victim's phone just as he had with the other residents. According to defendant, the victim, acting without provocation, struck him over the head with a coffee mug, knocking him to the floor. Defendant further stated that, at some point, the victim climbed on top of him with a "huge knife in her hand." A struggle over the knife ensued, and after defendant gained control over the knife, he began stabbing the victim. The victim sustained a total of 29 stab wounds, 19 of which were inflicted while she was still alive.

         Defendant was charged with open murder, MCL 750.316.[1] At the conclusion of defendant's trial, the trial court instructed the jury on the elements of the crimes of first-degree premeditated murder, second-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter as well as the evidentiary findings beyond a reasonable doubt that were required to convict defendant of any of these crimes. Specifically, the trial court stated:

The Defendant is charged with open murder. To prove first degree premeditated murder, the Prosecutor must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt.
First, that the Defendant caused the death of Marie McMillan, that is, that Marie McMillan died as a result of a stabbing. Second, that the Defendant intended to kill Marie McMillan. Third, that this intent to kill was premeditated, that is thought out beforehand. Fourth, that the killing was deliberate which means that the Defendant considered the pros and cons of the killing and thought about and chose his actions before he did it. There must have been real and substantial reflection for long enough to give a reasonable person a chance to think twice about the intent to kill. The law does not say how much time is needed. It is for you to decide if enough time passed under the circumstances of this case. The killing cannot be the result of a sudden impulse without thought or reflection. Fifth, that the killing was not justified, excused or done under circumstances that reduce it to a lesser crime.
To prove second degree murder the Prosecutor must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt. First, that the Defendant caused the death of Marie McMillan, that is, that Marie McMillan died as a result of a stabbing. Second, that the Defendant had one of these three states of mind: he intended to kill, or he intended to do great bodily harm to Marie McMillan, or he knowingly created a very high risk of death or great bodily harm knowing that death or such harm would be the likely result of actions. Third, that the killing was not justified, excused, or done under circumstances that reduce it to a lesser crime.
In count one, if you find the Defendant guilty of murder you must state in your verdict whether it is murder in the first degree or murder in the second degree.
The crime of murder may be reduced to voluntary manslaughter if the Defendant acted out of passion or anger brought about by adequate cause and before the Defendant had a reasonable time to calm down. For manslaughter, the following two things must be present. First, when the Defendant acted his thinking must be disturbed by emotional excitement to the point that a reasonable person might have acted in impulse without thinking twice from passion instead of judgment. This emotional excitement must have been the result of something that would cause a reasonable person to act rashly or on impulse. The law does not say what things are enough to do this. That is for you to decide.
Second, the killing itself must result from this emotional excitement. The Defendant must have acted before a reasonable time had passed to calm down and return to reason. The law does not say how much time is needed. That is for you to decide. The test is whether a reasonable time passed under the circumstances of this case.

         The jury retired to deliberate, and following its deliberation, the jury returned, finding defendant guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a). The trial court imposed a life imprisonment sentence without the possibility of parole for that conviction.

         Defendant appealed, arguing that the prosecution failed to present sufficient proof to support the elements of premeditation and deliberation, and therefore his first-degree premeditated murder conviction rested upon insufficient evidence. The Court of Appeals agreed with defendant, finding that there was sufficient evidence to support a second-degree murder conviction but not defendant's first-degree premeditated murder jury conviction. People v Oros, 320 Mich.App. 146, 150; 904 N.W.2d 209 (2017). The Court of Appeals applied the factors set forth in People v Schollaert, 194 Mich.App. 158, 170; 486 N.W.2d 312 (1992), [2] and explained that it found the circumstances surrounding the killing as the most significant factor. Oros, 320 Mich.App. at 155-156. The Court of Appeals rejected the prosecution's argument that defendant had adequate time to consciously reconsider his actions in a "second look," believing that this Court in Hoffmeister excluded the notion that premeditation could be formed between successive stab wounds. Id. at 156-157. Based on this understanding, the Court of Appeals vacated defendant's first-degree premeditated murder jury conviction, imposed a second-degree murder conviction, and ordered a remand to the trial court for sentencing as to that offense. Id. at 167-168.

         The prosecution sought leave to appeal in this Court, and we directed the Clerk to schedule oral argument on the application and the parties to address the following issue:

[W]hether the Court of Appeals properly viewed the trial record for sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation in the light most favorable to the prosecution, including drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the jury verdict, and whether the record evidence is sufficient to sustain defendant's conviction for first-degree premeditated murder. Peo ...

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