The 1981 Constitutionality Case Against the Second-Degree Murder Statute

Police tape

In 1981, the Colorado Supreme Court was asked to determine if the state’s second-degree murder statute was unconstitutional. 

The case, People v. Fite, arose from Joan Fite’s appeal of her second-degree murder conviction on the grounds that Colorado Revised Statute 18-3-103(2) was unconstitutional among other things. 

Joan Fite was charged with first-degree murder after the Dec. 26, 1978, shooting death of her husband Thomas Fite, according to the state Supreme Court’s 1981 opinion. Evidence presented by prosecutors showed on the evening of Dec. 25, 1978, the Fites along with their daughter Denise Fite and other guests were playing cards and drinking at the Fite’s home near Pagosa Springs, Colorado. 

During that card game, Thomas Fite presented a handgun and joked the game was going to be fair. He then placed the gun on the buffet. Later on in the game, according to court documents, Joan Fite removed the gun and put it in the drawer of the bedroom nightstand. The game concluded close to midnight and the Fites went to bed. 

The court document noted Joan Fite and Thomas Fite had a turbulent relationship and were contemplating a divorce. Denise Fite, who slept in an adjoining bedroom, allegedly heard through the wall an altercation and a heated exchange prior to hearing two shots being fired. Shortly after, Denise Fite said Joan Fite came to her bedroom and said “I just shot Tom twice” and remarked she warned Thomas Fite she would shoot him if he ever hit her again. 

Thomas Fite was transported to a hospital in Durango, Colorado, where he underwent emergency surgery. He was under intensive care for several days but appeared to improve so his physicians discontinued antibiotic treatments to avoid risk to his other organs. 

But Thomas Fite had an undiscovered liver abscess which burst the day he was scheduled for discharge and infiltrated his entire system. The abscess was surgically drained and removed and the antibiotics resumed but Thomas Fite died on Jan. 30, 1979, from infection and multiple organ system failure secondary to the gunshot wounds, according to the court opinion.

A Pagosa Springs Police Department Officer and the Archuleta County Sheriff alleged they heard Joan Fite say she warned Thomas Fite not to hit her anymore or she would kill him and she said similar things to other people in the six months before the shooting. 

The authorities made various observations and collected evidence, the admissibility of which was questioned at trial. Specifically, one of the investigators found the gun wrapped in a towel and locked it in the trunk of his car and another found a bullet slug on the bed which the investigator placed the date and their initials on. 

On Jan. 26, 1979, a search warrant was obtained for the Fite home. A bullet slug was found lodged in the mattress and it, along with several other items of evidence, was sent via registered mail to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for testing. 

According to the court opinion, the trial court conducted a hearing on the admissibility of the mattress and Joan Fite claimed it wasn’t in the same condition as the evening of the shooting. The court overruled the objection and the mattress was entered into evidence. Upon defense counsel conducted voir dire, the trial court ruled the mattress inadmissible. But the prosecution got testimony from one of the investigators about the blood stains on the mattress and admitted photographs had been taken of it later on Jan. 26, 1979. 

Joan Fite claimed an inadequate foundation as to the chain of possession and objected to the admission of the gun, holster, empty shell casings and loaded shells recovered from the gun, and the bullet slug found inside the mattress on Jan. 26, 1979. According to the court opinion, the court admitted each exhibit and permitted Ted Ritter, a firearms identification specialist for the CBI, to testify that in his opinion the two bullet slugs recovered from the bed and mattress had been fired by the .38 caliber revolver.

Joan Fite moved for acquittal, arguing the insufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence on culpability and causation. Court documents noted she also moved to dismiss the lesser offense of second-degree murder, arguing the statutory exclusion of impaired mental condition and self-induced intoxication as defenses to second-degree murder violates due process. The court denied both motions.

Joan Fite elected to testify on her own behalf, denied remembering the shooting and said her last memory that evening was being struck by her husband. According to the court opinion, her principal witness was a psychiatrist who testified Joan Fite was suffering from an explosive personality and a seizure disorder which rendered the shooting an automatic response beyond her control. In the psychiatrist’s stated opinion, Joan Fite didn’t deliberate before the killing, lacked an intent to cause death and didn’t know what she was doing when she shot her husband.

Joan Fite was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 10-20 years. 

The Colorado Supreme Court first examined the constitutionality question first. It answered part of the argument Joan Fite presented in its 1981 ruling in People v. Gallegos, in which it held the section of the law with the exclusion of defenses for second-degree murder doesn’t impair the constitutional right of the accused to prosecutorial proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 

In other rulings, including in People v. Ledman, the state Supreme Court held the law neither creates a presumption of culpability for general intent crimes, nor violates an accused’s due process right. Because the law doesn’t lessen the prosecution’s burden of proof for the culpability of “knowingly” for a second-degree murder, it determined the law wasn’t unconstitutional. In this case, the court found a jury instruction on voluntary intoxication gave Joan Fite the benefit of an affirmative defense to which she wasn’t entitled, according to the opinion. 

The high court found Joan Fite wasn’t in a position to claim the statute injured her defense.

Joan Fite also claimed the evidence for her second-degree murder charge was legally insufficient. She argued the cause of Thomas Fite’s death was actually the discontinuation of antibiotics and gross negligence and a supervening cause relieved her of any criminal responsibility. But the high court didn’t agree. 

It found a conviction of criminal homicide requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the death was a probable consequence of a defendant’s unlawful act. It determined generally, the unlawful infliction of a wound that later develops into a fatal infection renders the offender criminally responsible for the consequential death, according to the opinion. It also found the trial court’s instruction on supervening cause shouldn’t have been given and that error was to the benefit of Joan Fite.

On the evidence issue raised by Joan Fite, the state Supreme Court found any error in excluding the mattress worked to Joan Fite’s advantage and can’t be claimed as prejudicial. It also found the testimony at trial clearly demonstrated each object offered into evidence was in the same condition as when first recovered.

It affirmed the conviction.

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