EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Supreme Court of Wyoming Finds Self-Defense Isn't a Defense to a Felony Murder Charge

A defendant meets with a victim and arranges to purchase an "eight ball” of methamphetamine." The defendant gives the victim some money for the purchase and waits to hear from him. Later that evening, the defendant goes to the victim's home to acquire the methamphetamine. A surveillance camera recording reveals that the defendant approached the victim's truck and began searching the vehicle. The victim then appeared in front of his home holding a hatchet and discovered the defendant inside his truck. The victim approached the driver's side door and attempted to open it, but it was locked. The defendant opened the passenger door and exited the vehicle. The victim went around the back of the truck and approached the defendant at the passenger door, holding the hatchet. The defendant then jumped back into the truck, picked up a knife, and fatally stabbed the victim in the ensuing scuffle. 

The defendant is charged with felony aggravated burglary and felony murder. Can the defendant claim self-defense? This was the question of first impression addressed by the Supreme Court of Wyoming in Schnitker v. State, 2017 WL 3614047 (Wyo. 2017).

This was an easy one. While the court noted that this was a case of first impression in Wyoming, it cited People v. Walker, 78 A.D.3d 63, 68-69 (N.Y. App. Div. 2010), for the proposition that

nearly every jurisdiction that has opined on the matter makes a justification defense unavailable to those who initiated the underlying felonies (see e.g. State v. Celaya, 135 Ariz. 248, 660 P.2d 849 [1983]Gray v. State, 463 P.2d 897 [Alaska 1970]People v. Loustaunau, 181 Cal. App. 3d 163, 226 Cal. Rptr. 216 [1986]People v. Burns, 686 P.2d 1360 [Colo. 1983]State v. Amado, 254 Conn. 184, 756 A.2d 274 [2000]Holland v. State, 916 So. 2d 750 [Fla. 2005]cert. denied, 547 U.S. 1078 [2006]Roche v. State, 690 N.E.2d 1115 [Ind. 1997]State v. Marks, 226 Kan. 704, 712, 602 P.2d 1344, 1351 [1979]State v. Scales, 655 So. 2d 1326 [La. 1995]cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1050 [1996]Sutton v. State, 139 Md. App. 412, 776 A.2d 47 [2001]cert. denied,366 Md. 249, 783 A.2d 223 [2001]Commonwealth v. Garner, 59 Mass. App. Ct. 350, 795 N.E.2d 1202 [2003]Layne v. State, 542 So. 2d 237 [Miss. 1989]Commonwealth v. Foster, 364 Pa. 288, 72 A.2d 279 [1950]Smith v. State, 209 Tenn. 499, 354 S.W.2d 450 [1961]Davis v. State, 597 S.W.2d 358 [Tex. 1980]cert. denied, 449 U.S. 976 [1980]State v. Dennison, 115 Wash. 2d 609, 801 P.2d 193 [1990]).

According to the Walker court, These cases reason that prohibiting a defendant from claiming self-defense is consistent with the purpose of the felony murder rule.

And, while the defendant tried to claim that there was a split of authority, the court noted that the defendant had only cited to a Georgia case that had been overruled. Therefore, the court was easily able to

agree with the majority of jurisdictions that have addressed this issue and conclude that self-defense is not available to a defendant who kills while engaged in the perpetration of an enumerated felony. Our legislature has determined that burglary is an offense which carries a significant prospect of violence and that, as such, it is a crime which supports a charge of felony murder when a killing results during the perpetration of the burglary.



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Isn't there some famous case where a burgler cut himself on someone's broken window and then successfully sued for the injuries?

Posted by: Robert | Aug 31, 2017 2:28:08 PM

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