In May 2019, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a New York homicide case discussing whether the defendant was entitled to a justification, or self-defense, jury instruction. Ultimately, the court concluded that the evidence presented did not support a justification charge, and it rejected the defendant’s claim to the contrary.
A justification charge informs the jury that it can find the defendant was justified in committing what would otherwise be considered a crime. Justification is a defense to a crime under New York Law. Specifically, the charge explains that “a person may use physical force [if] he/she reasonably believes it to be necessary to defend himself/herself [or someone else] from what he/she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of [unlawful] physical force by such individual.” A justification charge can be especially important in cases involving violent crimes.
According to the court’s opinion, the defendant shot and killed his daughter’s boyfriend after the two were involved in a heated argument. Three witnesses testified at trial. Two of the witnesses testified to only viewing a brief portion of the argument. However, the third witness, a postal employee in the process of delivering mail, caught most of the argument.
Evidently, the defendant approached the victim and his friend in the lobby of the defendant’s apartment complex and told the victim to stay away from his daughter. The victim began to argue with the defendant, explaining that the defendant had no right to tell him with whom he could associate. The postal employee testified that the victim swung at the defendant a few times before the defendant took out a pistol and pointed it at the victim. The victim swiped at the gun and told the defendant “if you going to pull a gun out, you got to use it,” at which point the defendant shot the victim in the chest. The victim died as a result of the gunshot, and the defendant was charged with murder and manslaughter.
At the conclusion of the trial, the defendant asked the court to instruct the jury on justification. The court declined, and the jury found the defendant guilty of manslaughter. The defendant appealed to the intermediate appellate court, which reversed the lower court’s decision. The prosecution appealed to the state’s high court.
On appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, the court explained that, as the initial aggressor, the defendant was not entitled to a justification instruction. The court explained that an initial aggressor cannot benefit from a justification defense. Here, regardless of which party initiated the physical fight, the victim was unarmed when the defendant pulled out his gun. This, the court explained, was the initial use of deadly force, making the defendant the “initial aggressor” with respect to deadly force. That being the case, the court determined that the trial court was correct in denying the defendant’s request for a justification instruction.
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