First-degree murder conviction reversed because the trial court failed to instruct the jury on self-defense

Yesterday, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a first-degree murder conviction because the trial court did not give the jury a self-defense instruction.  A trial court is required to provide a jury with a self-defense instruction “[i]f the evidence at trial fairly raises a general defense.”  According to the Tennessee Supreme Court, sufficient evidence to fairly raise a general defense “is less than that required to establish a proposition by a preponderance of the evidence.”  State v. Hawkins, 406 S.W.3d 121, 129 (Tenn. 2013).  In determining whether the above standard is met, the trial court must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant and draw all reasonable inferences in the defendant’s favor.

Under Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-11-611, a person acts in self-defense when the person:

is not engaged in unlawful activity and is in a place where the person has a
right to be has no duty to retreat before threatening or using force intended
or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury, if:
(A) The person has a reasonable belief that there is an imminent danger of
death or serious bodily injury.
(B) The danger creating the belief of imminent death or serious bodily
injury is real, or honestly believed to be real at the time; and
(C) The belief of danger is founded upon reasonable grounds.

In addition, a person who provokes another’s use or attempted use of unlawful force is not justified in threatening or using force unless the person “abandons the encounter or clearly communicates to the other the intent to do so; and the other person nevertheless continues or attempts to use unlawful force against the person.”

In this case, two of the three eyewitnesses testified that the defendant was the primary aggressor.  However, the third eyewitness stated that the victim “pulled his pants up as in with aggression” and started “coming towards [the defendant].”  According to the third eyewitness, the defendant then put his hands up like “[h]old up” and the victim reached for the defendant’s gun in his waistband.

Interestingly, the third witness’s testimony differed from his initial statement to police.  Originally, he told police that the victim pulled his pants up at the defendant and the defendant pushed him off.  Then, the defendant reached for his gun as the victim rushed him.

Despite the inconsistency, the court of criminal appeals found the third witness’s testimony sufficient to fairly raise the question of self-defense.  The court noted that, while the third witnesses’s testimony was inconsistent with his original statement, at trial he consistently testified that the victim rushed the defendant and reached for the defendant’s gun.  Importantly, the jury could have believed the third witness instead of the other two witnesses.  This factual issue was for the jury, not the court, to decide.  Therefore, since the evidence fairly raised a self-defense claim but the jury was denied the opportunity to consider whether the defendant acted in self-defense, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial.

State v. Boswell, No. W2016-02591-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. Dec. 5, 2017)

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