Interesting Due Process Case

The Supreme Court is going to hear the case of Metrish v. Lancaster, concerning a Michigan man (Burt Lancaster, believe it or not) who shot and killed his girlfriend in 1993. He asserted defenses of insanity and diminished capacity during trial, but was convicted. But due to an error made during jury selection, his conviction was overturned on appeal, and the state retried him in 2005.

Between his first and second trials, the state of Michigan abolished the diminished capacity defense, which Lancaster intended to use again. And again he was convicted, perhaps in part because he could not make a claim of diminished capacity.

So he has appealed this second conviction, claiming the denial of his opportunity to use the diminished capacity defense violated his due process rights. Since it was a legitimate defense at the time of his act, and was a settled part of Michigan common law at that time, he cannot be denied the opportunity to make that claim.

In response the State of Michigan claims the diminished capacity defense was never authorized statutorily, and was never a settled part of Michigan common law. Therefore he has no right to the defense and he has suffered no denial of due process.

A very technical case, to be sure, but an important one for due process–can the state change the rules of the game on you in mid-course (not that they were intending to change the rules on Mr. Lancaster, but that’s the effective result). I don’t know enough of that area of constitutional law to make much of an argument for either one side or the other. Note that even if he wins, that doesn’t mean Michigan can’t eliminate the diminished capacity defense, just that this law can apply only to crimes that happened after its elimination. But as precedent it’s broader than that because it could apply to other changes in criminal procedure that occur between the time of some crime’s commission and the defendant’s trial.

On such obscure technical details does the course of justice turn. And that’s why you should always get an attorney.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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12 Responses to Interesting Due Process Case

  1. Dr X says:

    What is (was) a diminished capacity defense in Michigan? Is it something less than old fashioned, legal insanity (don’t know the wrongness/ substantially unable to control one’s actions)? Or is it the traditional insanity defense that has been dropped from Michigan law?

  2. James Hanley says:

    It’s a claim of mental illness or defect that falls short of an insanity defense; one that can be made by a legally sane defendant to demonstrate they didn’t have the specific intent necessary for their act to be a crime, or at least not first-degree murder, but something less willfully intentional. Insanity is still a defense under Michigan law, although my vague understanding is that it’s been made more difficult to sustain/demonstrate.

  3. Dr X says:


  4. pierrecorneille says:

    I’d be curious to know what a legal scholar thinks about the constitutional arguments. My own sense of how things ought to be done would be to say that even if diminished capacity was “only” a common-law defence, the accused should be allowed to claim it.

    By the way, is this a death penalty case?

  5. James Hanley says:


    Michigan does not have the death penalty (never has).

    Common law is essentially judge made law, and is normally trumped by statutory–legislature made–law, unless the common law rule is essentially constitutional level law.

    If I get the opportunity, I’ll ask someone more knowledgeable about the issue of disallowing a defense that was allowed at the time the crime was committed.

  6. Ryan Noonan says:

    Fun note (copied from Wikipedia): Michigan was the first English-speaking government in the world to abolish the death penalty for ordinary (non-treason) crimes. Go Blue and all that.

    This case is also interesting to me because it seems to touch on the principles behind the ban on ex post facto laws too.

  7. I did not not know that Michigan.

    I did realize that common law is judge-made law (or, common practice informed by judicial precedent), but I do think that just because it’s common law makes it no less of a law than a statute, especially when we’re talking about rights of the accused. At least, that’s my sense of how it should be. A legal scholar might find precedent for allowing Michigan to retroactively (in a sense) invalidate a common-law defense.

  8. James Hanley says:

    I do think that just because it’s common law makes it no less of a law than a statute,

    Oh, I agree completely. My point was simply that–like an actual statute law–a common law can be overridden by a subsequent statute.

    Unless, that is, the common law rule is deemed to be a constitutional level rule (like, say, giving a suspect a Miranda warning). But it looks as though neither the Michigan Supreme Court nor the US Supreme Court has ever ruled that the ability to use a diminished capacity plea is an inherent part of due process. Which is neither to argue that they should or should not do so, and a belief that they should is certainly a legitimate position.

    I’m torn on that issue. One the one hand, I think there’s no doubt that some crimes are committed when the perpetrator has experienced a temporary loss of rational thought and impulse control. People who commit spontaneous violent crimes of passion often claim they don’t remember it very well. That might seem hard to swallow–at least it was for me, initially–but after reading The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why (which is a pretty intelligent book for having been written by a journalist), I realized that this is a common experience in moments of very high tension, for both perpetrators of the violence and victims. So I’m comfortable with the idea that they should be punished less harshly than intentional perpetrators.

    On the other hand, I I don’t think there’s any real way to test the defense. Insanity itself (at least as a legal standard) is hard enough to prove or disprove, but a temporary loss of rationality—well, the only evidence that leaves a trace is the act itself, and if we use the act itself to demonstrate diminished capacity, then we’ve gotten pretty circular, and all bad actions are partially excusable on the plain grounds that the actions actually happened.

    Or as our old friend used to say, “Our problems remain empirical.”

  9. James Hanley says:


    Well, that’s not much of a criticism of libertarianism. (grin)

  10. Ryan Noonan says:

    Let me get warmed up first! You damn libertarians want everything right away.

  11. James Hanley says:

    Thank you. I feel better now.

  12. pierrecorneille says:

    I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of diminished capacity (I lean toward favoring it as a defense), but I think the question here is (or maybe, could be) different from whether it’s desirable to make that offense available and from whether the constitution (or principles in the constitution’s due-process requirements) mandate that the defense be made available. It’s also a question (in my view, maybe not in the way the legal question is being framed) whether a state ought to be able to retroactively take away that defense even if the defense itself is not constitutionally required. It seems to me a bit like changing the rules after the “contest” has started.

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