Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Daniel Remeta: On the Road to Destruction

Compelled To Kill

James C. Hunter Jr.
James C. Hunter Jr.

Lisa Dunn and James Hunter were each sentenced to two life terms for the felony-murder convictions, two life terms for the aggravated kidnapping convictions, 15 years to life for aggravated battery of a law enforcement officer, 15 years to life for aggravated robbery, and 5 to 20 years for aggravated battery, and quickly disappeared into the Kansas correctional system. There was a brief scuffle between Kansas and Arkansas over Dunn's extradition, because Kansas's governor adamantly opposed the death penalty and wouldn't send her to face a capital murder charge, but most of the attention for the next several years was focused on the appeals she and Hunter launched shortly after their convictions.

Hunter argued that the trial court erred when it refused to give the jury specific instructions about how compulsion can mitigate a person's guilt.  Most laws that provide for a defense of compulsion stem from the age-old legal belief that a person, when faced with a choice between suffering death or serious bodily harm and committing some lesser crime, should not be punished for committing the lesser offense.

Under Kansas law, the coercion or duress "must be present, imminent, and impending, and of such a nature as to induce a well-grounded apprehension of death or serious bodily injury if the act is not done.  The doctrine of coercion or duress cannot be invoked as an excuse by one who had a reasonable opportunity to avoid doing the act without undue exposure to death or serious bodily harm. In addition, the compulsion must be continuous and there must be no reasonable opportunity to escape the compulsion without committing the crime."

Additionally, the common law does not allow a compulsion defense when a person is accused of murder, because, in the words of one legal treatise, "When confronted by a choice between two evils of equal magnitude, the individual ought to sacrifice his own life rather than escape by the murder of an innocent."

Hunter, who was charged with a felony murder — that is, a killing that occurred during the course of the commission of a felony — argued that he was entitled to use a compulsion defense to excuse his conduct because he was forced to choose between his own death and the kidnappping — not the killing — of Moore and Schroeder. The judge in his trial disagreed, and did not include instructions to the jury about compulsion.

In July 1987, the Kansas Supreme Court handed down its decision on Hunter's appeal, overturning his convictions and ordering a new trial, at which time he would be allowed to offer the compulsion defense. The court reasoned that if compulsion is available as a defense to the underlying felony, it must also be available as a defense to the murder committed by someone else that accompanied the felony.

Kansas prosecutors quickly moved to retry James Hunter, but after the defense presented the evidence of Remeta's abuse and the judge delivered the required instructions about compulsion, the jurors returned a not-guilty verdict.

Hunter had little time to enjoy his newfound freedom, however. Four days after his acquittal, he suffered a fatal heart attack brought on, his father told the press, by the stress of the retrial.

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