California Court Rejects Defendant’s Request for Complete Self-Defense Instruction

In May 2019, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a California homicide case discussing whether the trial court correctly instructed the jury on the defendant’s self-defense claim. Ultimately, the court concluded that the jury was properly instructed to consider only known threats that the victim made against others.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant and several other men approached the victim’s trailer to evict him from the property, which was owned by one of the men with the defendant. Evidently, the landowner believed that the victim had stolen from him.

As the defendant approached the victim’s trailer, the victim’s friend, who also lived on a trailer and was being evicted, arrived. The men got into an argument, and the defendant put the victim in a headlock. According to the victim’s friend, the defendant pulled out a gun, put it to the victim’s head, and pulled the trigger. The victim died instantly. It was later determined that the victim had high levels of methamphetamine in his system.

The defendant was charged with murder and several other offenses, including voluntary manslaughter. The defendant did not testify, but called several witnesses to testify on his behalf. Through these witnesses, it was established that the day before the incident, the victim pulled a gun out on the landowner when the landowner approached the victim’s trailer to ask him to leave the property. However, there was no testimony that anyone conveyed this threat to the defendant.

At the conclusion of the evidence, the defendant asked the court to instruct the jury on self-defense. Specifically, the defendant requested the court instruct the jury that “If you find that [the victim] threatened or harmed the defendant or others in the past, you may consider that information in deciding whether the defendant’s conduct and beliefs were reasonable.” The court rejected the defendant’s requested instruction, finding that there was no evidence that the defendant knew about the threat by the victim. Instead, the court instructed the jury “consider all the circumstances as they were known to and appeared to the defendant and consider what a reasonable person in a similar situation with similar knowledge would have believed.” The defendant was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The defendant appealed.

On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court’s refusal to provide the defendant’s requested instruction. The court explained that the touchstone of a self-defense claim is the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the alleged crime and that “evidence that a victim had previously threatened or harmed others is relevant to a defendant’s claim of self-defense only if the defendant knew of the victim’s prior threatening conduct.”

The court reasoned that there was no evidence suggesting that anyone informed the defendant of the threat made against the landowner. That being the case, the court concluded that the trial court’s instruction to “consider all the circumstances as they were known to and appeared to the defendant” was an appropriate instruction.

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