Gourko v. United States/Opinion of the Court

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Gourko v. United States by John Marshall Harlan
Opinion of the Court
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

153 U.S. 183

GOURKO  v.  UNITED STATES


The court below made a long charge in reference to the principles of law which it conceived to be applicable to murder, manslaughter, and self-defense. Among other things, the court said to the jury: 'A man has a deliberate intent to kill in the absence of a right to kill under the law of self-defense, and in the absence of that which would mitigate the offense to manslaughter. He cannot have a deliberate intent to kill and then say that his offense was only manslaughter, because the fact that he had an intent to kill implies that he deliberated over that purpose; that he prepared himself for it; and, as you will learn further on, where deliberation, premeditation upon a purpose to slay, where previous preparation to execute that purpose exists, there is banished from the case that condition known as manslaughter, because that grows into existence upon sudden impulse, without previous preparation to take life. Whenever that exists, we have malice, and nothing else, unless it is a case where a man prepares himself for self-defense, and then, in order to exonerate himself from that killing, he must execute that preparation where the law gives him a right to do it, and in a defensive way. He may prepare himself for self-defense, but if he kills when there is no case of self-defense, such act of previous preparation becomes criminal in its character because of his subsequent act, and it becomes attached to that act. It does not necessarily import especial malevolence toward the individual slain, but also includes the case of a generally depraved, wicked, and malicious spirit, a heart regardless of social duty, and a mind deliberately bent on mischief. It imports premeditation.' To this part of the charge the defendant duly excepted.

The defendant asked the court to instruct the jury 'that preparation in the heat of blood may be followed by manslaughter as well as under a certain state of case it may be followed by murder or self-defense.' The court refused to give this instruction, without modification, and to that action of the court the defendant excepted. The court modified the proposition embodied in this instruction by saying to the jury: 'If a party prepares to defend himself in a case where he could defend himself, he has a right to do that; but if he prepares himself, as I have already told you, and then executes a deadly purpose by killing under circumstances where he would have no right to kill, where there was an absence from the case of the right of self-defense, or an absence of the mitigating conduct that I have given to you that would reduce the grade of the crime to manslaughter, then the fact of his previously preparing himself shows deliberation for a deadly criminal purpose, and there could not be manslaughter under such conditions as that. He may prepare himself, as I have already told you, to defend himself in a proper way; but because he has prepared himself to act upon the defensive, if he afterwards abandons that purpose and kills, if he has no right to kill in the absence of facts that would give him the right to defend, then the fact of previous preparation becomes evidence of deliberation,-evidence of design. As I have already told you, manslaughter cannot spring out of a state of case where a man prepares himself to kill wrongfully, when he prepares himself to take human life when he has no right to do it. That is evidence of malice aforethought, and it is the distinguishing line between manslaughter and malice aforethought.'

We are of opinion that the part of the charge to which the defendant took exception, as well as what the court said in modification of the instruction asked by the defendant, were wanting in the clearness that was requisite in order that the jury might not misapprehend the principles of law by which they were to be controlled.

Assuming, for the purposes of the present inquiry, that the defendant was not entitled to an acquittal as having acted in self-defense, the vital question was as to the effect to be given to the fact that he armed himself with a deadly weapon after the angry meeting with Carbo in the vicinity of the post office.

If he armed himself for the purpose of pursuing his adversary, or with the intention of putting himself in the way of his adversary, so as to obtain an opportunity to kill him, then he was guilty of murder. But if, in view of that occurred near the post office, the defendant had reasonable grounds to believe, and in fact believed, that the deceased intended to take his life, or to inflict upon him great bodily harm, and, so believing, armed himself solely for necessary self-defense in the event of his being pursued and attacked, and if the circumstances occurring on the occasion of the meeting at or near the saloon were such as, by themselves, made a case of manslaughter, then the defendant's arming himself, after the difficulty near the post office, did not have, in itself, the effect to convert his crime into that of murder. Stated in another form: Although the defendant may not have been justified on the occasion and under the particular circumstances of the difficulty at the billiard saloon in believing that the taking of his adversary's life was then and there necessary to save his own life or to protect himself from serious bodily harm, nevertheless the jury were not authorized to find him guilty of murder because of his having deliberately armed himself, provided he rightfully so armed himself for purposes simply of self-defense, and if, independently of the fact of arming himself, the case tested by what occurred on the occasion of the killing was one of manslaughter only.

The court, in effect, said-or the jury may, not unreasonably, have understood the court as declaring-that preparation by arming, although for self-defense only, could not be followed, in any case, by manslaughter, if the killing, after such arming, was not, in fact, in necessary self-defense. Such we understand to be the meaning of the charge. In our opinion, the court erred in so charging the jury. If the accused was justified in the eye of the law in arming himself for self-defense, and if, without seeking, but on meeting, his adversary, on a subsequent occasion, he killed him, not in necessary self-defense, then his crime was that of manslaughter or murder, as the circumstances, on the occasion of the killing, made it the one or the other. If guilty of manslaughter, looking alone at those circumstances, he could not be found guilty of murder by reason of his having previously armed himself solely for self-defense.

The judgment is reversed, and the cause remanded for a new trial.

Notes[edit]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).