Weed Mitigating Manslaughter

Not to question the wisdom of imposing a sentence of 100 hours of community service to be used telling people about the dangers of demon weed, plus two years probation, but by any measure, it was a remarkably lenient sentence for stabbing a man to death. And, not to speculate, had the killer been a man and the victim been a woman, it has all the makings of another Brock Turner case.

And the rationale for such leniency was a second hit on a bong.

Spejcher testified that she asked him for a hit from the bong. He prepared it for her and she inhaled. All she felt, she told the court, was ‘burning and coughing’.

Some 15 minutes later, when the effects had failed to kick in, O’Melia added more cannabis to the device, generating more smoke, and, according to Spejcher said: ‘something like, let’s make this more intense for you…or more f**ked up’.

Bryn Spejcher, 32, testified that she didn’t really want that second hit, but felt pressured and, apparently, incapable of resisting. It did not go well.

Immediately after the second hit, she began to feel unwell and ran to the bathroom to vomit, before lying on the couch. She then described the onset of a series of disturbing psychiatric symptoms.

Spejcher described seeing and hearing ‘things that weren’t there’, ‘feeling like I was a dead body’ and seeing her corpse ‘from up above’.

Her hands, which she used to grab the bread knife that penetrated O’Melia’s abdomen, she saw as someone else’s ‘like in a movie’.

‘…and then it went black’.

First she killed the man she had been dating for about a month, 26-year-old Chad O’Melia, then her “beloved” dog, and she ultimately turned the knife on herself, stopping only after baton strikes by police.

Dr Kris Mohandie, forensic psychiatrist and expert witness, told the jury: ‘[Spejcher’s] behavior is well documented, in my opinion, of psychosis.

‘The nature of it, the spontaneous things she was saying…it was consistent with the delusion and the command hallucinations and voices that she claimed she was hearing later on.’

He added that her use of cannabis caused ‘delusions and hallucinations,’ and she’d ‘lost touch’ with reality.

Spejcher was convicted of manslaughter despite the argument that her actions were the product of psychosis, but Ventura County Superior Court Judge David Worley took it into account at sentence.

The judge ruled that Spejcher ‘experienced a psychotic break from reality’ and ‘had no control over her actions’ when she killed Chad O’Melia, then 26, on Memorial Day weekend 2018.

Sentencing today, Judge Worley said: ‘The task [of sentencing] is made all the more difficult by the knowledge that the decision will impact good people.’

But he added that he does not believe further incarceration is necessary.

The family of the victim was not quite as understanding.

O’Melia’s family cried when the sentence was read out at Ventura Superior Court, with the victim’s father warning it gave ‘everyone who smokes marijuana in this state a license to kill’.

While the fact pattern bears some unusual elements, such as killing her dog, they have a point. Is marijuana induced psychosis the new “twinkie” defense? Now that recreational pot use is legal in many states, does it provide a get-out-of-jail card for killings?

The flip side is whether this judge, any judge, would be so bold as to impose a non-incarceratory sentence if the sexes were flipped and it was a man who killed a woman because he was high. Given the treatment of killings resulting from extreme alcohol intoxication, held to be murder as the choice to drink to excess knowing that he would be driving later satisfied the “depraved indifference” mens rea element, why would smoking weed relieve the user from culpability?

In this case, Spejcher claimed that she felt pressured to take a second hit from the bong, and there was no testimony to the contrary since the only other person in the room was dead. Does being too weak to resist such pressure mitigate culpability? Is this pressure understandable, acceptable, only because she was female and thus too fragile to make her own decisions? Would the outcome have been rejected had it been two men, or two women, or a woman pressuring a man to get high?

12 thoughts on “Weed Mitigating Manslaughter

  1. Skink

    I’d really like to see the science that was presented to the court. Weed doesn’t induce florid psychosis from a single session. But bath salts or spice are well-known to take some people from zero MH history to raging psychotic in a flash, as they can make organic changes to the brain.

    I don’t have the time to do the lifting to see if California recognizes voluntary intoxication as mitigation, but it seems from this, that’s the law. I wonder if it really was completely voluntary if the evidence was he powered the bong up with spice. After all, we only have media reports that it was ordinary weed.

    1. Guitardave

      I had the same thought when reading this part…
      “‘let’s make this more intense for you…or more f**ked up’.”

      Not that the media would ever knowingly omit that kind of fact in lieu of a sensational ‘Reefer Madness 2.0’ headline…(cough, cough)

    2. C. Dove

      California does allow for voluntary intoxication to negate specific intent only. (Pen. Code, § 29.4) It is not an affirmative defense. Instead, it reduces a specific-intent crime like murder to a general intent crime like manslaughter.

    3. Tom B

      The numbers I find in the medical literature suggest an increase risk of schizophrenia of 130% after using marijuana 1-10 times. More frequent use increases risk further.
      Marijuana is well known to trigger acute psychosis, especially in people who already have some psychotic symptoms.

      Also, I believe Spice is the common name for synthetic marijuana, same mechanism of action, just more potent.

      1. Skink

        The literature is far from universal on the subject, and all of the reputable sources caution that the assumptions made, which are several, don’t account for other conditions favorable to development of both psychosis and schizophrenia.

        Spice is synthetic for a reason: it’s not marijuana. It’s chemicals. The two are not alike.

        I deal with this daily in my practice and have since the synthetics came along. I don’t dabble.

    1. Drew Conlin

      If allowed by SJ rules and apologies if this is already familiar

      “One Toke Over The Line” was performed on The Lawrence Welk Show, a television program known for its conservative, family-oriented format, by a duo known as “Gail and Dale”. At the conclusion of the performance of the song, Welk remarked, without any hint of irony, “There you’ve heard a modern spiritual by Gail and Dale.” This caused Michael Brewer to comment:

      The Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, named us personally as a subversive to American youth, but at exactly the same time Lawrence Welk performed the crazy thing and introduced it as a gospel song. That shows how absurd it really is. Of course, we got more publicity than we could have paid for.[4][5]

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