Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Self Defense, Involuntary Manslaughter Instructions Should Have Been Given, Warranting Reversal

U.S. v. Toledo, 2014 WL 43986 (1/7/14) (N.M.) (Published) - Failure to give a self defense instruction warrants reversal. The 10th found that if Mr. Toledo's testimony was credited---and that testimony must be given "full credence" when assessing the necessity for a self-defense jury instruction--- the jury could reasonably have concluded that Mr Toledo believed deadly force was necessary to prevent the deceased from causing him great bodily harm. Mr. Toledo testified the much taller and heavier, angry, and drunk deceased rushed toward him with hands up and he feared the deceased would choke him or pull him up over the five-strand barbed wire that was in between them. So Mr. Toledo stabbed him. Testimony that the deceased could be very violent when drinking supported the conclusion that the deceased exhibited "great violence" as he approached Mr. Toledo. The 10th recognized problems with the defense, including the fence, Mr. Toledo's admission at trial that he could have retreated, and testimony that, as he stabbed the deceased, he said "I'm not afraid of you." For each problem the 10th proffered an explanation: despite an agent's testimony to the contrary, a defense witness testified the fence was like a rubber band; in hindsight Mr. Toledo might have realized he could have retreated, but maybe not at the time; and Mr. Toledo's testimony that he was afraid should be taken into account even though he made a contradictory statement at the time. In sum, the 10th stressed the burden to get a self-defense instruction is "not onerous" and all inferences must be accorded in favor of the defense. Mr. Toledo met the burden notwithstanding that the evidence was contradictory and "not overwhelming." And for all the stand-your-ground fans, really good news: self-defense does not require the exercise of a duty to retreat or the recognition of the unavailability of reasonable alternatives. All that's required is a reasonable belief that deadly force is necessary.

From this it followed that Mr. Toledo was also entitled to an involuntary manslaughter instruction. This was so because the jury could have found Mr. Toledo acted in self-defense but was criminally negligent in doing so. The distinguishing factor between imperfect and perfect self-defense is the reasonableness or unreasonableness of Mr. Toledo's belief that deadly force was necessary. A district court may reject a lesser-included instruction only when there is "no evidence" to reasonably support it." (Emphasis by the 10th). Even "weak and contradicted" evidence is enough.