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Premeditation Is Not Deliberation: 9th Overturns Death Sentence

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Jury instructions that impermissibly merged first-degree murder's mens rea elements violated due process, the Ninth Circuit ruled last Friday. As a result, they invalidated the 1990 murder conviction and death sentence of Billy Ray Riley based on faulty jury instructions.

The guilt-phase instructions advised the jury that if it found premeditation, it has found deliberation. Those are two separate elements, however, and the state needed to prove each one, according to the Ninth.

A Drug-Fueled Murder

The killing occurred when Riley was staying at the home of Albert Bollin, a drug dealer. Riley became upset about how drug dealers had treated him in the past -- and decided that he would begin robbing dealers who "did not treat him appropriately." Those rude dealers apparently included Bollin, with Riley demanding that he turn over all his cocaine. What followed, according to one witness, was straight out of a drug-induced nightmare. Bollin said Riley would have to kill him first, Riley asked if he was "ready to die," and Bollin asked if he could take one more hit of cocaine first. Then, he said he was ready to die, and Riley shot him in the chest, killing him.

The Kazalyn Interregnum

In the jury instructions given at Riley's murder trial, deliberation was defined as a part of premeditation. The instructions are known as Kazalyn instructions in Nevada, after a 1992 state supreme court case that found willfulness, deliberation, and premeditation to be redundant elements. According to the instructions, any premeditated killing -- even premeditation which is "as instantaneous as successive thoughts of the mind" -- is "willful, deliberate and premeditated murder."

However, Kazalyn was overruled in 2000. In over turning the Kazalyn decision, the state court noted that its prior opinion had unreasonably tried to replace deliberation and premeditation with simple intent and confused the distinction between first- and second-degree murder. Deliberation is a discrete element, the state supreme court now found, not a synonym for premeditation. It must be proven independently for a murder conviction to stand.

But Did it Matter?

The use of Kazalyn instructions was a due process violation, the Ninth found. Since Riley was convicted in 1990, two years before Kazalyn was decided, first-degree murder then included all three mens rea elements, requiring the state to prove deliberation as well as premeditation. Under Nevada law, deliberation cannot be "formed in passion" -- it must be cool and calculated. Since there was evidence that Riley's actions were drug-fueled and taken in the heat of the moment, not requiring the state to prove deliberation significantly prejudiced him. Riley is now off death row, but will continue to serve an unchallenged life sentence for theft.

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