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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Cop’s Murder Defense Picked Up by High Court

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court will decide whether Michigan properly barred a former police officer from claiming diminished capacity in a murder case.

Burt Lancaster was a former Detroit police officer with a long history of mental illness when he shot and killed his girlfriend, Toni King, in a shopping plaza parking lot on April 23, 1993.

Lancaster asserted defenses of insanity and diminished capacity at the ensuing trial, but a jury convicted him in 1994 of first-degree murder and possessing a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Finding that the state had committed an error in jury selection, however, the judgment was overturned.

Before Michigan could retry Lancaster in 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court abolished the diminished-capacity defense in People v. Carpenter.

Lancaster had been planning to limit his defense in the second trial to just diminished capacity, but trial court applied Carpenter retroactively and barred the defense. He was again convicted and sentenced to life plus two years in prison.

A federal judge tasked with Lancaster's subsequent habeas corpus petition concluded that the retroactive application of Carpenter did not violate the due process clause. A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit reversed in June 2012.

The state presented two questions in its petition for certiorari.

It asks whether the upheaval of the diminished-capacity defense created an "unexpected and indefensible" change in a common-law doctrine of criminal law under retroactivity jurisprudence.

And it asks if the retroactive application of Carpenter justified habeas relief because the decision was "so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement."

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