Criminal Law Blog

Don’t try to use booze as your defense to manslaughter or second-degree murder


Jorida Davidson v. United States (decided May 5, 2016).

Players: Associate Judges Glickman, Fisher, and Easterly. Opinion by Fisher. Trial Judge: Lynn Leibovitz. Thomas Heslep for Ms. Davidson.

Facts: After consuming at least three glasses of wine and champagne, Ms. Davidson was driving home in her sport utility vehicle when she hit and killed Kiela Ryan, who was exiting her car after having parallel parked on Connecticut Avenue. Ms. Davidson did not stop but a witness wrote down her license plate number and contacted police. About an hour later, police found Ms. Davidson asleep inside her car, which was parked in her assigned parking spot in the garage underneath her condominium. She showed signs of intoxication when police subjected her to field sobriety tests, but she refused a breathalyzer test. A jury convicted her of voluntary manslaughter for causing Ms. Ryan’s death by acting “with a conscious disregard of an extreme risk of death or serious bodily injury to another.”

Issue 1:  Did the trial court err in denying defense’s requests for a jury instruction on voluntary intoxication?

Holding:  No. While voluntary intoxication may reduce first-degree murder to second-degree murder, Bishop v. United States, 107 F.2d 297, 301 (D.C. Cir. 1939), it is not a defense to either second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. “[A] defendant may be drunk enough to reduce his conviction from first- to second-degree murder, but he may not use his voluntary intoxication to diminish the offense further, to manslaughter, or seek acquittal on that basis.” Appellant argued that under Comber v. United States, 584 A.2d 26 (D.C. 1990) (en banc), which discussed the mental states required for murder and manslaughter, voluntary intoxication can negate the mental state for both murder and manslaughter. The Court disagreed, noting that the same argument was already rejected in Wheeler v. United States, 832 A.2d 1271, 1275-76 (D.C. 2003), and reiterated that there is a firm line where voluntary intoxication can reduce first- to second-degree murder, but nothing more.

Of Note:

  • Ms. Davidson also raised two additional issues that the Court dealt with in a footnote. First, the Court determined there was sufficient evidence that Ms. Davidson “conscious[ly] disregard[ed] . . . an extreme risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person.” And second, Ms. Davidson was convicted after a retrial, and the Court determined the trial court “did not abuse its discretion by precluding appellant, in closing argument, from comparing the evidenced presented at this trial to that presented in the first trial,” citing Haley v. United States, 799 A.2d 1201, 1207 (D.C. 2002), for the proposition that a court abuses its discretion in limiting closing argument only if it “prevents defense counsel from making a point essential to the defense.” BM

Read full opinion here.