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Pfister v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

May 18, 2018


         Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Trial Court No. 3AN-11-12507 CR Michael R. Spaan, Judge.

          Dan S. Bair, Assistant Public Advocate, Appeals and Statewide Defense Section, and Richard Allen, Public Advocate, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Michal Stryszak, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, and Allard and Wollenberg, Judges.



         In November 2011, Brian Albert Pfister and two accomplices - Joseph Trantham and Maurice Johnson - decided to break into the home of a marijuana grower and rob him. Pfister waited outside while his two accomplices entered the marijuana grower's home.

         Once Trantham and Johnson were inside the home, they pistol-whipped the marijuana grower and demanded his money. The marijuana grower led Trantham and Johnson to his safe - where, unbeknownst to the robbers, he kept a handgun. The grower removed the handgun from the safe and used it to shoot Trantham and Johnson - mortally wounding both of them. Pfister ran away, but he was later arrested.

         The State charged Pfister with first-degree burglary, first-degree robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery. The State also charged Pfister with two counts of manslaughter, for causing the deaths of his two accomplices. Following a jury trial, Pfister was convicted of all these crimes.

         In this appeal, Pfister challenges his two manslaughter convictions. He asserts that, under Alaska law, an accomplice to a dangerous felony cannot be convicted of manslaughter when the person who is killed as a result of the felony is another accomplice.

         Pfister notes that, under Alaska law, he could not be convicted of felony-murder for the deaths of his accomplices. This is because the portion of the second-degree murder statute that defines felony-murder, AS 11.41.110(a)(3), expressly exempts situations where the person who dies during a violent felony is "one of the participants" in that felony.

         Based on the fact that Alaska's felony-murder statute does not cover situations where a felony results in the death of an accomplice to that crime, Pfister argues that the Alaska Legislature also must have intended to exempt accomplices to a felony from any criminal liability for the death of another accomplice. Thus, under Pfister's view of the law, he could not be convicted of manslaughter or any other degree of criminal homicide based on the deaths of his two accomplices to the burglary and robbery in this case.

         As we explain in this opinion, Pfister's argument is inconsistent with the common law defining the crime of manslaughter. Based on that common law, and based on the hundred-year history of Alaska's manslaughter statute, we conclude that Pfister's proposed limitation on the crime of manslaughter is inconsistent with the intent of the Alaska Legislature. We therefore uphold Pfister's two manslaughter convictions.

         However, for the reasons explained in this opinion, we remand Pfister's case to the superior court for re-sentencing.

         The common-law definition of manslaughter, and the related doctrines of felony-murder and mi sdemeanor-manslaughter

         At common law, the crime of manslaughter was a residual category of unlawful homicide. Manslaughter was defined as any unlawful homicide committed without malice aforethought - that is, any unlawful homicide that was not murder.[1]

         Thus, whenever a person caused the death of another human being, and if that killing was neither justified nor excused, and if the killing did not constitute some form of murder, then the person was guilty of manslaughter. [2]

         One of the forms of murder recognized at common law was "felony-murder". In the early days of the common law, this doctrine applied only to homicides that were caused during an attempt to perpetrate a felony - because, in those days, any completed felony was already punishable by death. [3]

         Later, when the law allowed lesser penalties for felonies, the felony-murder doctrine was altered to cover any unintended homicide that resulted from the perpetration or attempted perpetration of an inherently dangerous felony, or from any other felony that was perpetrated in a dangerous manner. [4] In such instances, the common law viewed the defendant's intent to commit the felony as "malice aforethought" - thus elevating the homicide to murder - even though the defendant had no intent to kill. [5]

         Because the only intent required for felony-murder was the intent to commit the felony, the felony-murder rule applied to deaths that were attributable to the commission of a felony even if those deaths were unforeseen or even quite unexpected:

If [the] intent [to commit the felony] is shown[, ] the resulting homicide is murder even if it was quite accidental. ... [For example, ] if arson results in the death of a fireman who was trying to put out the fire, the arsonist is recognized as having caused this death and is guilty of murder under the felony-murder rule. [6]

         Indeed, even the accidental killing of an accomplice during the perpetration of the felony was felony-murder for this same reason. [7]

         The common law also recognized a related doctrine that is commonly referred to as the "misdemeanor-manslaughter" rule.

         Under this rule, a person was guilty of manslaughter if they engaged in any unlawful act that was not covered by the felony-murder rule and, as a result, another person died.

         The misdemeanor-manslaughter rule is sometimes treated as if it were a separate legal doctrine, distinct from (but related to) the felony-murder rule. However, in truth, the misdemeanor-manslaughter rule follows directly from the definition of manslaughter.

         As we explained earlier, the common law defined manslaughter as any unlawful homicide that did not constitute murder. Thus, if a person engaged in an unlawful act, and if that act resulted in the unintended death of another human being, and if that death did not constitute felony-murder, then the crime was manslaughter.

         Alaska's historical definitions of manslaughter and felony-murder

         During the eighty-year interval between the earliest codification of Alaska territorial law (the Carter Code of 1900)[8] and the effective date of Alaska's current criminal code (January 1, 1980), [9] Alaska adhered to the common-law definition of manslaughter. That is, manslaughter was the residual category of unlawful homicide: it encompassed any unlawful homicide that did not constitute either first- or second-degree murder.

          The earliest codification of this principle is found in Part I, Section 6 of the Carter Code:

[W]hoever unlawfully kills another, except as provided in [the sections defining first- and second-degree murder], is ...

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