The Court of Appeals in Dawkins v. U.S., decide on July 26, 2018, reversed a manslaughter conviction based on erroneous and incomplete jury instructions on technicalities of the self-defense law and its application.
An effective employment of self-defense can negate or diffuse the malice of an intentional act. That is, even an intentional killing based on a valid self-defense is not malicious and thus it is excused and accordingly no crime at all.
Here the defendant was in a fistfight with the victim and as the fight escalated, the defendant fatally stabbed the victim as claimed in the self-defense.
The DC law does not impute a duty to walk away from using a non-deadly force when it is necessary to defend oneself. However there is duty to retreat when applying a deadly force and when it is reasonable to do so and does not put oneself in grave harm of serious injury or death.
The defendant challenged on appeal the trial court’s self-defense instruction in that the court erroneously permitted the jury to consider his failure to walk away from the victim at the wrong time -— before he employed deadly force or had any possible justification to do so.
The government when facing a valid claim of self-defense must prove that the defendant did not act in self-defense in that the defendant did not reasonably believe that he was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, or used greater force than actually and reasonably believed to be necessary under the circumstances.
The defendant on other hand must prove that he was in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death, and that he had to use lethal force to save himself from that harm and that both beliefs were objectively reasonable.
In the District of Columbia, it is recognized that when an individual is faced with a real or apparent threat of serious bodily harm or even death itself, there is no mandatory duty to retreat however the is a technical catch here.
The applicable jury instruction provides:
The law does not require a person to retreat or consider retreating when s/he actually and reasonably believes that s/he is in danger of death or serious bodily harm and that deadly force is necessary to repel that danger. But the law does say that a person should take reasonable steps, such as stepping back or walking away, to avoid the necessity of taking a human life, so long as those steps are consistent with the person’s own safety. In deciding whether [name of defendant] acted reasonably, you should therefore consider whether s/he could have taken those steps, consistent with his/her own safety.
Thus the ability to retreat is time sensitive, it must be considered right before the use of deadly force not way earlier when there is no need to use deadly force. Here the trial’s court jury instruction allowed for the jury to confuse when the duty to retreat should have been considered.
That is, the retreat instruction delivered by the trial court did not clearly prohibit the jury from considering conduct that occurred before Mr. Dawkins employed deadly force or had a possible justification to do so.
The prosecution was also allowed to argue on closing that the defendant’s ability to walk away earlier from the fight and before it escalated to use of deadly force was a factor for jury to consider in determining his reasonableness in using dearly force – such should not have been a legal consideration for the jury. The duty to retreat or ability to retreat must and should have been considered right before the deadly force was employed and not earlier when the fight had ensued.
Thus a reversal was appropriate given the severity of the charges, and reliability of the jury on the erroneous instructions.
Refer to our Washington DC Criminal lawyer Page for more information on this subject.