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Intox defense has skeptics

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | MARCH 13, 2009 7:30 AM

An intoxication defense in criminal trials isn’t uncommon, but UI professors are uncertain whether it applies for second-degree murder charges.

Generally, voluntary intoxication can be used as a defense in specific intent crimes, such as first-degree murder, where premeditation is an essential element of the charge, UI law Professor David Baldus said.

Curtis Fry, who is using an intoxication defense, is charged with second-degree murder. The charge is considered a general intent crime because premeditation in the killing is not suspected.

Nowhere in the United States is intoxication a valid defense for general intent crimes, Baldus said. The wording in the Iowa Code leaves the judge or jury little room for discretion on the issue.
“It’s attempted routinely, and it’s routinely unsuccessful in the case of a general intent crime,” Baldus said.

Given this, if the defense is successful, the case would likely be appealed to a higher court. The decisions of the lower court have no binding effect in terms of establishing precedent, Baldus said.

Whether this defense becomes more common depends on the decision of the Iowa Supreme Court, if the case were to be appealed. Fry’s verdict would not be affected by the appeals process.

A successful intoxication defense can bring a first-degree murder charge down to second-degree, or bring voluntary manslaughter down to involuntary, but it would rarely bring a murder charge down to manslaughter, UI Associate Political Science Professor Timothy Hagle said.

“Crossing that line from murder to manslaughter is a little tough in the case of an intoxication defense,” he said.

In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a jury may be told not to take intoxication into account when considering a case. In 2005, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed a district court’s decision that defense attorneys could not be held liable for not introducing intoxication as a defense.

This provision — that intoxication is only a valid defense to specific intent crimes — is so fundamental, there aren’t exceptions to the law, Baldus said.

In Fry’s case, the judge has the option of convicting Fry of second-degree murder or a lesser charge — voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.


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