“Defend us, thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies”
The Book of Common Prayer, a Collect for Peace (P. 17)
Assaults are frequently criminally prosecuted usually resulting in convictions by plea or verdict, and those dispositions are affirmed when appealed.
That pattern was reflected in a quintet of cases decided concurrently by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, three of them on the last day of spring in June. The decisions, preceding the longest day of the year, turned into an unfortunate day for the assailants, all of whom had their convictions affirmed by the appellate court.
There was enough evidence to sustain a conviction for third-degree assault, along with one count of domestic assault, by a man who attacked his girlfriend in her home and threatened to kill her in State v. Crooks, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 607 (Minn. App. June 20, 2016)(unpublished). The Hennepin County District Court jury returned the verdict on both counts and the appellate court affirmed.
The assailant’s contention that the evidence did not suffice was rejected because the testimony of the victim alone was sufficient to support the conviction. Furthermore, her direct testimony of the assault was corroborated by two police officers and a physician. The perpetrator’s argument that the testimony of the victim, who worked with abused women, was biased because of that work was not persuasive because of the jury’s credibility determinations in favor of her and against the perpetrator. Her testimony was buttressed by contemporaneous photographs taken by police officers shortly after the incident, which showed serious injuries on her face and portions of her anatomy.
In sum, the jury’s verdict was upheld because it believed the state’s witnesses and disbelieved any contrary evidence, which was enough to affirm the outcome.
A pair of other assault convictions overcame defenses that the convicted perpetrators were engaged in defensive maneuvers, rather than affirmative assaultive behavior.
Another verdict by a Hennepin County District Court jury of fifth-degree assault and related offenses arising out of an ejection of a man who had a service dog from a grocery store that led to a fight between the customer and the store’s security officer was upheld in State v. Heath, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 603 (Minn. App. June 20, 2016) (unpublished). The appeal included a claim that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on the defense of others and self-defense in a combined instruction. The trial court’s instructions to the jury adequately informed it of the elements of defense of others, which is similar to the doctrine of self-defense involving the use of reasonable force.
The claim that the jury was not adequately informed about the state’s burden to disprove the defense of others claim also was rejected. The trial court gave an unequivocal statement regarding the state’s obligation of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self -defense, which constituted an adequate exploration of the state’s burden with regard to the defense of others.
A more straight forward claim of self-defense also was rejected in State v. Eggermont, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 602 (Minn. App. June 20, 2016)(unpublished). The appeal arose out of a jury verdict of multiple assault counts about a fracas that occurred between two neighbors when a homeowner struck his neighbor in the head with a flashlight when the latter’s ladder was on the former’s premises.
The claim of self-defense was rejected, primarily grounded on the absence of aggression or provocation on the part of the victim. The jury could have reasonably concluded that [the defendant] was the initial aggressor and provoked the incident, which resulted in the defendant having forfeited self-defense by himself.
The Hennepin County jury in State v. Word, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 614 (Minn. App. June 20, 2016)(unpublished) found the defendant guilty of second-degree intentional murder when he shot and killed a man in connection with a dispute over repayment of a debt owed by the defendant’s ex-girlfriend to the victim.
The defendant’s claim of self-defense was ineffective because the defendant failed to establish two of the essential elements of that claim: that he had an actual and honest belief that he was in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death and that there was a reasonable basis for that concern. Although the defendant claimed that the victim had a much better physique than he and was more powerful, the two had in the past “frequently physically fought to resolve their differences, despite their physical differences.” Because the jury credited the state’s evidence, in its determination the state adequately disproved the defendant’s self-defense claim that he was in fear of imminent harm.
Furthermore, there were no reasonable grounds for the defendant to believe that he was in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death. Although the victim, while emerging from a car, initially attacked the defendant, only a brief period of time elapsed before the defendant shot him. Testimony from witnesses showed that the defendant had prepared for the fight by carrying a loaded firearm with him in the car, along with telling friends that he would shoot someone if an encounter occurred. Based on this evidence, the jury rationally concluded that it was not reasonable, under the circumstances, for [the defendant] to believe that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, which also scuttled his self-defense argument.
Nor did the prosecutor commit prejudicial error in the closing argument by addressing the elements of self-defense. Although the prosecutor’s closing argument contained inartful statements that could be viewed as shifting the burden of proof, overall the state’s closing argument regarding self-defense did not misstate the law. Even if it did, the evidence was very strong against the defendant and any prosecutorial misconduct would not have affected the outcome.
These cases show that when they appeal their assault convictions, defendants rarely stand a prayer of succeeding.
Elements of self defense
- Absence of aggression or provocation by defendant;
- Actual and honest belief of imminent danger of death or great bodily harm;
- Reasonable grounds for such belief; and
- No “reasonable possibility” to retreat or avoid imminent danger to self.
Originally published by Minnesota Lawyer.