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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Metrish v. Lancaster - Can a State Supreme Court Retroactively Abolish the Diminished Capacity Defense?

Tomorrow is the final scheduled day of oral argument in this term and the Supreme Court will hold a one-hour hearing on whether it is unconstitutional for government to abolish a legal defense to a criminal charge; specifically the 'diminished capacity' defense is at issue in Metrish v. Lancaster.

Diminished Capacity is an affirmative defense that dates back about 60 years and was first recognized in California. It became intertwined with the so-called "Twinkie Defense" from the the 1979 homicide trial of San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White. White's lawyer successfully convinced a jury that his depression, as evidenced by the once health-conscious White turning to a diet of junk food, combined with the sugar rush of eating several Hostess Twinkies was enough to warrant a reduction from first degree murder to manslaughter. Public disapproval lead California to abolish the defense as it was written and to implement one that was more difficult for defendants to establish.

When Michigan State officials took this to the Supreme Court, they asked two questions: (1) whether the abolition of the defense by a state court ruling was 'unexpected and indefensible' under previous Supreme Court rulings on retroactivity, and (2) whether the retroactive application of the state court ruling was an error that justified a court victory for Lancaster.

Supported by nine other states, Michigan contended that the “diminished capacity” defense has been seriously criticized in recent years, and so "it could hardly come as a surprise when a state opted to take it away."

Read more about the case on SCOTUS Blog.
Read the briefs here.

Update: The Decision for this case came on May 20, 2013 - Read about it here.