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Grant of Habeas Relief from Second-Degree Murder Conviction Overturned

By FindLaw Staff | Last updated on

In Stewart v. Wolfenbarger, No. 08-2154, the court was faced with a habeas petition challenging a conviction for second-degree murder under the aiding and abetting theory.

The court "...acknowledge[d] that Stewart's is an unusual case in two respects. First, Stewart was convicted of second-degree murder for aiding and abetting the murder by providing one of the weapons the principals used to carry out the crime. There was no evidence that Stewart was present when the principals robbed and murdered Robert Pippins. Indeed there was no evidence that Stewart knew that the principals intended to rob Pippins specifically or that a murder would be committed with Stewart's weapon. Additionally, we note the fact that the jury actually acquitted Stewart of first-degree felony murder and convicted him of second-degree murder. However, under Michigan law, both crimes required proof of largely the same elements including the same mens rea, malice, the difference being that the prosecution had to prove an underlying felony in order to convict of felony murder. It would appear then that the jury found the elements of second-degree murder as well as an underlying felony and still acquitted Stewart of first-degree felony murder."

Nevertheless, the court reversed the decision of the district court which had found merit in defendant's sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenge. Instead, "[a]lthough the facts of this case make it closer than other sufficiency-of-the-evidences cases" nevertheless there was sufficient evidence (largely circumstantial) to support the second-degree murder conviction as an aider and abettor.

Specifically: "Stewart admitted that he provided a .38 handgun to Whitley with the knowledge that Whitley and Tate were going to use it to commit a robbery. A rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Pippins provided the .38; that Tate, Whitley, and Hadley used the .38 to rob Robert Pippins and then murder him; that these three men and one other were observed fleeing from the scene and were pursued by Detroit Police; that they abandoned their vehicle with the .22 rifle and the drugs stolen from Pippins; and that they later admitted to Stewart that they had used his gun to commit murder and disposed of the weapon during the police chase."

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