State v. Shabazz

In State v. Shabazz, 169 Vt. 448, 739 A.2d 666 (1999), the Court was presented with a challenge to jury instructions describing the crime of voluntary manslaughter. The defendant, Bahiyod Shabazz, stabbed and killed a man during a failed robbery attempt. The testimony at trial varied as to the purpose of the robbery, but provided that the robber was seeking either crack cocaine or money. After the robbery was in progress, a scuffle ensued, and the robber was disarmed and unmasked. The unmasking revealed that the robber was a person known to Shabazz, and the disarming revealed that the gun presented by the robber was in fact a toy. The testimony at trial varied as to whether Shabazz stabbed the robber before or after discovering the gun was a toy. He was eventually charged with murder for the killing, but argued that his actions were in self-defense. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge instructed the jury on the doctrine of self-defense, as well as on the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter. He stated that there are three ways that the prosecution may prove the intent requirement of voluntary manslaughter-by proving "an actual intent to kill or an intent to cause great bodily harm or a wanton disregard that the likelihood that his acts would cause death or great bodily harm." Id. at 449, 739 A.2d at 667. The trial judge in that case elucidated on the concept of wanton disregard, defining it for the jury as the condition where "the defendant actually knew . . . of the likelihood that his conduct might naturally cause death or great bodily harm, and nonetheless, engaged in the act." Id. at 450, 739 A.2d at 667. He was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter. On appeal, Shabazz argued that the jury instruction was insufficient to support his conviction for voluntary manslaughter, as only involuntary manslaughter, and not voluntary manslaughter, may be premised on intent to kill implied from indifference to human life or intent to do serious bodily injury. Id. The Court disagreed, holding that the mens rea requirement for voluntary manslaughter could indeed be premised upon implied intent, and that "the better view of the phrase 'intent to kill' as used in the definition of voluntary manslaughter is that it serves as a short-hand description of the fuller definition of the mental state for second degree murder." Id. at 453, 739 A.2d at 669. The Court described the "intent to kill" required for second degree murder as including actual intent to kill, and also "encompassing intent to do serious bodily injury as well as extreme indifference to human life." Id. The Court held that there was no error in the jury instruction, and that it "properly delineated the three types of mens rea that would ordinarily constitute murder if not mitigated to voluntary manslaughter." Id. at 455, 739 A.2d at 670.