Washington v. Hummel (2016)
by David S. Marshall
The Washington State Court of Appeals has reversed the conviction of Bruce Hummel for the premeditated murder of his wife—domestic violence at its worst. The appellate court found that evidence of motive did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Hummel premeditated his wife’s death.
Teacher Bruce Hummel was living with his wife and their three children in Bellingham, Washington when on October 18, 1990, Mrs. Hummel disappeared from the family home. Her whereabouts were uncertain for many years afterward, and authorities never located her body.
Despite the fact no body was found, Mr. Hummel was charged and convicted in 2009 (nearly twenty years after his wife’s disappearance) of first degree murder. Under Washington law, a first degree murder conviction is only appropriate when “with a premeditated intent to cause the death of another person, [the defendant] causes the death of such person.” RCW 9A.32.030(1)(a).
At trial, the State argued that the first degree murder charge was appropriate partly because of evidence that Mr. Hummel had a motive to desire his wife’s death. In a 2004 letter to police after a missing person’s report had been filed for Mrs. Hummel, Mr. Hummel told detectives that his wife had committed suicide on the date of her disappearance, but that he had hidden her suicide in order to continue drawing her retirement benefits.
More evidence of motive came from Mr. Hummel’s daughter, who testified at trial that domestic violence had occurred in the family home. The daughter also testified that a few days before her mother’s disappearance, she told her mother that Mr. Hummel had been sexually violent towards her, and that Mrs. Hummel promised her that she would confront Mr. Hummel about these accusations.
The appeals court ruled that it violated Mr. Hummel’s Fourteenth Amendment due process rights to conclude that premeditation was established beyond a reasonable doubt simply because Mr. Hummel had a motive for killing his wife. The Fourteenth Amendment protects criminal defendants from conviction unless the State can prove all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. While the fraudulent withdrawal of his wife’s retirement benefits and his daughter’s report of domestic violence established that Mr. Hummel had a motive to kill his wife, they did not conclusively prove that he had planned ahead of time to kill her.
The appellate court also found that the jury could have been instructed to consider the lesser offense of second degree murder, RCW 9A.32.050(1)(a), which does not require evidence of premeditation—but only if either the prosecution or the defense asked that it be so instructed, and neither did; both sides apparently wished to have first-degree murder the only crime of which Mr. Hummel could be convicted. The court of appeals therefore remanded the case to the trial court to dismiss the charge entirely.