Brutal murder of mother and daughter in Bledsoe County

By now, most of you have heard about the gruesome killing of a Pikeville mother and her adult daughter in their home this past week.  Pikeville Police Chief Ronald Byrd commented, “Nobody should be treated . . . the way they were done.  I’ll just say that.”  Bledsoe County Sheriff Jimmy Morris stated, “I guess we can say it’s a brutal murder.”  There are rumors that the pair were hacked to death with an ax.

The daughter’s boyfriend, 43-year-old Joe Whittenburg, has been charged with two counts of homicide.  Interestingly, Whittenburg was found unconscious and had to be transported to Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga.

While it is too early to say exactly what happened, the fact that Whittenburg was unconscious raises an interesting question.  Specifically, what role does intoxication play in a defense?  Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-11-503 provides:

(a) Except as provided in subsection (c), intoxication itself is not a defense to prosecution for an offense. However, intoxication, whether voluntary or involuntary, is admissible in evidence, if it is relevant to negate a culpable mental state.

(b) If recklessness establishes an element of an offense and the person is unaware of a risk because of voluntary intoxication, the person’s unawareness is immaterial in a prosecution for that offense.

(c) Intoxication itself does not constitute a mental disease or defect within the meaning of § 39-11-501. However, involuntary intoxication is a defense to prosecution, if, as a result of the involuntary intoxication, the person lacked substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of the person’s conduct or to conform that conduct to the requirements of the law allegedly violated.

(d) The following definitions apply in this part, unless the context clearly requires otherwise:

(1) “Intoxication” means disturbance of mental or physical capacity resulting from the introduction of any substance into the body;

(2) “Involuntary intoxication” means intoxication that is not voluntary; and

(3) “Voluntary intoxication” means intoxication caused by a substance that the person knowingly introduced into the person’s body, the tendency of which to cause intoxication was known or ought to have been known.

Assuming felony murder doesn’t apply, the State will need to show premeditation and intentionality if they want to convict Whittenburg of first-degree murder.  T.C.A. § 39-11-503.  As seen above in the intoxication statute, both voluntary and involuntary intoxication are relevant to whether a person has a culpable mental state.  So, if the defendant was so high that he was out of his mind, this may make it difficult for the State to prove first-degree murder.  Similarly, an extreme level of intoxication could also be a defense against second-degree murder, which is the “knowing” killing of another.

But what about reckless homicide?  If you look back at the intoxication statute, voluntary intoxication does not matter if the crime only requires recklessness.  Why?  Presumably, it’s because you’re already being “reckless” if you voluntarily take drugs that make you lose your mind.  So, if someone voluntarily takes drugs that make him unaware that his actions could kill someone and he kills someone, he may be convicted of reckless homicide.

With that said, a jury could reject an intoxication defense altogether and find the defendant guilty of first-degree or second-degree murder.  As an attorney, I regularly have to focus clients on “what would a jury think?”  That often matters more than the truth.  Perhaps, the defendant was out of his mind, but the facts make it unlikely that a jury would believe it.  On the other hand, the defendant could have been in his right mind, but the facts make it likely that a jury would think he was too intoxicated to know what he was doing.  That’s why it’s best to speak with a good attorney.  While no one can know exactly what a jury will do, an experienced attorney will help a defendant make informed decisions in his case.