Intoxication: a legitimate defense for reduced responsibility?

On November 1, 2012, two college students attending John Cabot University in Rome, Italy returned home to their apartment after a night of partying, a Halloween celebration. F, a 19-year-old New Jersey native, went to sleep while his long-time friend and roommate, R, remained awake with F’s visiting sister and her boyfriend. A few hours later, R went into the kitchen, secured a knife, walked into F’s bedroom, and proceeded to stab his sleeping friend 25 times. Miraculously, F survived.

According to reports, R “awoke” hours later in the Rome police station unaware of the cataclysmic events that transpired. When police informed him of his actions, R fell into a state of disbelief, sorrow, and grief. He had no memory of even returning to the apartment. Toxicology reports subsequently revealed that R had been under the influence of both alcohol and Ecstasy the night of the incident. A former FBI agent believes that R, a successful student and dear friend of the victim with no criminal record, may have been in a drug-induced psychosis or suffering from hallucinations during the time of the attack, completely unconscious of his actions.

The incident is not only tragic for the victim, who so luckily escaped death, but also for the first-time offender, a purportedly kind-hearted 20-year-old who cannot even bear to hear mention of the close friend he nearly killed. What will become of the rest of R’s life depends solely on whether the Italian system of justice finds him guilty for his actions. R certainly committed the crime, but how do his chemically altered mental state, diminished capacity, lack of deliberation and premeditation, and genuine remorse affect the consequences he will suffer? Is he legally responsible for his actions?

American case law suggests R is not, at least to a certain extent, responsible. In People v. Caverio, 1955, the defendant appealed his conviction of attempted murder in the first degree arguing he was too intoxicated to be accountable for his actions. Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Halpern of the appellant court concluded that since murder in the first degree is a crime which requires specific intent to kill as well as a deliberate and premeditated design to effect death, “…  voluntary intoxication rendering the accused incapable of formulating the required intent constitutes a partial defense to the charge and the charge must be accordingly reduced to a lower degree…” (People v. Koerber).

More recently, in 2006, a county court in New York addressed the defendant’s indictment for murder in the second degree in the context of a criminal prosecution that involved a DWI fatality in People v. Paryea. The court stated, “…those rare instances when the criminal culpability of the defendant would rise to such a level [of Murder in the second degree] could only occur when a defendant’s conduct is ‘so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so devoid of regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes the death of another’ ” (People v Payne, quoting People v Russell).

Since both cases appear to advance the proposition that a conviction for murder or attempted murder in the first or second degree requires an intent to kill, premeditated plans, moral deficiency, and disregard for life, it seems likely that an American court would not find R fully responsible for his actions. The issue is whether reduced responsibility due to intoxication promotes justice. How does the fact that R voluntarily ingested the substances that may have provoked his violent episode affect the administration of justice? Perhaps there should be some sort of disclaimer-like statute warning that individuals will be held fully responsible for any unlawful actions they commit while under the influence of either illegal substances or beyond a set legal limit of alcohol. To what extent a person is legally responsible for their actions when those actions occur within the mental fog of circumstances surrounding the use and abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs remains an ongoing debate in international law. It will be interesting to follow how the Italian court handles R’s situation.

–Brittany Perskin


3 thoughts on “Intoxication: a legitimate defense for reduced responsibility?

  1. While I do understand why R might not be held fully responsible for his actions considering he was unaware of his behavior at the time, in the end, I think that if an individual is willing to do drugs or drink to that extent, he/she must be aware of the possible consequences and assume responsibility. Thus, even if R was not intending on hurting his friend, the ruling should have no bearing on his intention considering that he is dangerous when intoxicated and a threat to society. While he might be a kind-hearted individual when sober, if he continues to drink, he could continue to harm others and be a threat. As a result, R should be held responsible for his actions to deter him and to help ensure we are safe and secure in our own society.

  2. People often commit actions with no “intent” of the outcome that arises. Are these people not to be held responsible? While in some cases where the action is spilling water on someones cell phone, the outcome is not so catastrophic, but in the case described my jaw hangs open as the story unfolds. Although R did not intend to hurt his friend, it is understood that R did ingest alcohol and Ecstacy. Since there is no doubt that R is responsible for the intake of these substances (if he was drugged unknowingly this case could be entirely different) I think he is responsible for what he does under the influence of those substances. Although he should not be convicted of murder on the basis of precedent, when those previous cases were decided did the judges have in mind the involvement of illegal drugs in a case? Also, even though this is quite exaggerated, any person with a criminal intent would see it beneficial to be intoxicated before committing a crime. What kind of society would it be with crazy criminals running around drunk?

  3. While drinking alcohol is legal, taking ecstasy is not. There are good reasons for why ecstasy is illegal, and this is an example of one of those reasons. You cannot be excused of criminal acts based on intoxication from an illegal substance. By choosing to take ecstasy, one intends to break the law, and he must bear the consequences of any subsequent actions that occur. Therefore, even though R did not begin the night intending to hurt his friend, he should be held fully responsible for the attempted murder under the law.

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