June 8, 2009
Conviction Overturned With Instructions To Acquit
Not a legal profession case, but of possible interest is a recent decision of the West Virginia Supreme Court Court of Appeals overturning a murder conviction in a case self-defense in the face of horrific domestic abuse. The court sent the case back to the trial court with instuctions to enter a judgment of acquittal. The court found such a disposition appropriate notwithstanding the jury's verdict:
Reviewing the record, there is just no evidence, only conjecture, that the defendant's “night of terror” had ended or that the defendant and the children in her care were safe from death or serious bodily injury. As we have found in Section III.2., of this Opinion, the defendant did not have a duty to retreat from her home before using deadly force against her attacker. Our law entitled the defendant under the circumstances of this case to her subjective belief that she was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury and to abate that threat, without retreating, with the use of deadly force. Under the circumstances shown by the evidence in this case, the defendant's use of deadly force to protect herself, without retreating, is subjectively reasonable.
Additionally, the overwhelming evidence demonstrates that any reasonable person similarly situated would have believed that death or serious bodily injury were imminent. Uncontested evidence from multiple witnesses and sources (e.g., the photographs depicting the defendant's numerous injuries and that the decedent was naked from the waist down), as discussed supra, established that the decedent's death precipitously followed the decedent's having physically and sexually assaulted the defendant, as well as having threatened _ on numerous occasions _ the life of the defendant and the lives of the children. Uncontested evidence also established that the decedent was drinking heavily and had a blood alcohol level of 0.22% _ nearly three times that where a person would be presumed intoxicated in West Virginia. In this intoxicated state of mind, the uncontested evidence is that the decedent's behavior immediately preceding his death was violent, unpredictable, criminal and placed the defendant at risk of death or serious bodily injury. Under such circumstances the defendant's use of deadly force to protect herself, without retreating, is objectively reasonable. The State's evidence failed to prove otherwise. Supposition and conjecture are not evidence.
In State v. Cook, Justice Davis, writing for the Court, properly noted that while we must be “[m]indful of the jury's province over the evidence presented on the issue of [self-defense], this Court will not permit an injustice to occur because a jury failed to adequately understand the evidence presented at trial.” We agree with that principle, and conclude that “[t]his is such a case.” State v. Cook, 204 W.Va. at 602, 515 S.E.2d at 138. Accordingly, we hold that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's actions were not made in self-defense and, therefore, the defendant's conviction and sentence must be vacated and this matter remanded for immediate entry of a judgment of acquittal.
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