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Appellate Court Reverses Manslaughter Charge Based on Improper Jury Instructions

three mop handlesOne of the most critical aspects of a criminal trial is providing instructions to the jury before they begin their deliberations. Before the jury is instructed, the prosecution and defense can consult with the judge about the instructions that they believe should be provided. Whether the jury is instructed about a particular defense or presumption can have serious implications for your trial. As seasoned New York City criminal defense lawyers, we routinely assist defendants with ensuring that the jury receives the appropriate and lawful set of instructions.

A recent case demonstrates the importance of jury instructions. The facts of the case as follows. The defendant was charged with second-degree murder and other charges including assault and possession of a weapon involving the fatal shooting of one victim and the shooting of a second victim. The surviving victim was the primary witness during the defendant’s trial. Evidence at trial indicated that the parties knew one another and that the two victims were friends of the defendant’s mother’s tenant. The defendant, along with his mother, had grown frustrated about the men lingering around the apartment and had repeatedly contacted police authorities to have them removed. On the night the shooting occurred, the police refused to arrest the two victims, stating that they were not engaging in criminal activity out front of the apartment. The defendant made a statement to the police indicating that he may engage in violence toward the victims using a gun.

The next day, the defendant left his home with a gun concealed in his jacket. The defendant confronted the two men, who were standing outside of a nearby bodega. The men eventually engaged in an argument and one of the victims picked up a mop from inside the bodega. The evidence presented at trial suggested that the victim with the mop raised it toward the defendant, at which point the defendant revealed his firearm and shot at both victims, wounding one and killing the other. According to the record and the victim’s testimony, however, it was somewhat unclear whether the mop was raised at the same moment the defendant brandished the gun, or whether the mop was raised prior to the gunshot.

The trial court instructed the jury on justification, including the initial aggressor exception. In general, this states that a defendant who provokes an encounter that results in him or her using deadly force to defend himself or herself cannot claim that he or she acted in self-defense and is guilty of unlawful homicide. The defendant was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree, among other things, and appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed, and one dissenting justice granted leave to appeal.

The reviewing court first stated that reversal of a conviction the basis of an improper jury instruction is only appropriate where the charge, read against the entire context of evidence provided during trial, could confuse the jury and was likely to do so regarding the appropriate rules that should be applied to the adjudication of the defendant’s case. The court then noted the conflicting evidence in the record regarding the sequence of events, which could support a view that the victim was the initial aggressor because he may have picked up the mop first. The appellate court also suggested that the facts could support the alternative view, i.e., that the defendant resorted to physical violence first by brandishing the loaded weapon. Accordingly, the court upheld the trial court’s provision of an instruction regarding the initial aggressor doctrine. It then stated, however, that there were issues regarding whether it was reasonable for the defendant to resort to using a firearm when faced with a mop handle, especially in light of the defendant’s statements to the police.

If you are involved in a criminal investigation or facing a criminal charge, it is critical that you consult a seasoned, knowledgeable, and compassionate criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. At Tilem & Associates, we have handled numerous criminal defense matters, including gun crimes, on behalf of a wide variety of New York City residents. To schedule your free consultation call us at 1-877-377-8666 or contact us online to get started.

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