New Jersey Supreme Court: “deific command” jury instruction not required in case

In State v. Singleton, (NJ Sup. Ct., July 30, 2012), the New Jersey Supreme Court clarified when a modified insanity instruction to the jury must be given as to a defendant who claims he committed an illegal act because he was commanded to do so by God. In a case which generated 3 separate opinions from the 6 justices currently sitting on the court, the majority reversed the appeals court and held that the special charge (known in New Jersey as the Warlock charge) need not be given in this case. Justice LaVecchia wrote the opinion of the court (though it was joined only by Justice Wefing). As summarized by the court’s syllabus:

Defendant is not entitled to a Worlock charge because the evidence does not clearly indicate that he failed to appreciate that killing Cazan was contrary to society’s morals. The Worlock variation is not available to all those who develop idiosyncratic moral compulsions from interpreting religious material….   Defendant’s personal belief system was based on his own interpretation of scripture, fortified through dreams in which he believed to receive communications from God. That does not render his belief system in his “right to kill” certain sinners the equivalent of a command from God to kill…..   Defendant also has failed to demonstrate entitlement to a Worlock charge because the evidence does not clearly indicate that he was acting pursuant to a delusional command at the time of the killing. A Worlock charge is available only when a perceived divine command overcomes a defendant’s ability to be conscious of society’s law and mores disapproving of that command.

Justice Paterson, joined by Chief Justice Rabner concurred, arguing that the Court should reject past precedent which created special considerations when a defendant claimed he was acting under a deific command.  The reasoned that the concept “invites a defendant to exploit a core value of our society, respect for the religious beliefs of others, for tactical advantage.”

Justice Hoens, joined by Justice Albin dissented, saying that “the majority has created a test so narrow as to be essentially non-existent.”