Supplementing the Pattern Premeditation Jury Instruction: Necessary or Unnecessarily Confusing?

Author: Dahnika Short, Staff Editor

State v. Stafford, No. 120,481 (Kan. Dec. 23, 2020)

Issue: Was the addition of a Bernhardt instruction to the premeditation Pattern Instruction for Kansas (PIK) confusing and therefore legally inappropriate?

Answer: No.  There was potential for jury confusion regarding presence of premeditation as there was an initial altercation between Stafford and the victim prior to the fatal blow and, therefore, the Bernhardt instruction was appropriate.

Facts: Stafford’s wife was found murdered by a stab wound to the neck.  Evidence suggested that a prolonged altercation between Stafford and the victim led to the murder.  Stafford appealed his conviction of first-degree murder based, in part, on the district court’s alleged error of including additional Bernhardt language in the premeditation PIK. 

Discussion: The standard premeditation PIK states “Premeditation means to have thought the matter over beforehand, in other words, to have formed the design or intent to kill before the act.”  The additional Bernhardt instruction included “premeditation does not necessarily mean that an act is planned, contrived or schemed beforehand,” and “premeditation can occur during the middle of a violent episode, struggle or fight.”

Stafford argued both that the instruction was confusing and that the Bernhardt language was inappropriate because the victim in Bernhardt died from several injuries.  The Kansas Supreme Court declined to focus on the number of injuries and, instead, focused on the presence or absence of a fight or struggle before the murder.  The court held that the Bernhardt instruction was warranted, as the evidence suggested that Stafford could have formed premeditation “after the initial confrontation, but before the final blow.”  The additional instruction helped alleviate juror confusion about whether premeditation can arise during a prolonged struggle.  The dissent did not focus on whether premeditation may be formed during a struggle.  Instead, the dissent argued that the given instruction was flawed because it contained contradictory statements. 

Key Authorities:

State v. Bernhardt, 372 P.3d 1161, 1171 (Kan. 2016) (holding the additional language indicates that premeditation can be formed “during or after an initial altercation,” not that premeditation can be instantaneous).

State v. Wright, 410 P.3d 893, 900 (Kan. 2018) (reaffirming that the Bernhardt language is a “correct statement of the law”).

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