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Self-Defense and Jury Instructions in Assault Cases in Washington

On Behalf of | Oct 17, 2016 | Assault

A recent case involving an alcohol-fueled quarrel that devolved into a knife attack, while yielding an outcome unfavorable to the woman accused of assault, offers some helpful information on the law of self-defense in assault cases. The Washington Court of Appeals decision, which upheld the set of jury instructions the trial judge gave before the jury found the woman guilty, demonstrates what a claim of self-defense may and may not mean in a criminal trial in relation to the instructions the judge gives the jury. In this case, the instructions were not worthy of reversal because the instructions the judge gave were justified by the evidence, and they did nothing to impede the accused woman’s ability to present her defense fully.

The case arose from the often problematic and sometimes dangerous intersection of copious alcohol and kitchen knives. A night of drinking turned violent inside Christopher Bohannon’s apartment after Bohannon rebuffed Dawn Sullivan’s request to smoke some of his marijuana. The refusal became an argument, and the argument escalated until, at one point, Sullivan went to the kitchen, grabbed a large knife, and slashed Bohannon several times. According to Bohannon and the other man in the apartment, an enraged Sullivan had attacked Bohannon with the knife. According to Sullivan, she had grabbed the knife in self-defense after being physically accosted by both men.

The incident led the state to charge Sullivan with second-degree assault with a deadly weapon. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge prepared the jury for deliberations. The judge gave them several instructions. He instructed them on the law of self-defense. He also, despite Sullivan’s objection, gave them a “first aggressor” instruction. However, despite Sullivan’s request, the judge did not give the jury an instruction on “multiple assailants.”

The jury found that Sullivan was not acting in self-defense and was guilty of assault. She appealed this conviction, arguing that the trial judge committed errors in the delivery of jury instructions that required a reversal of her conviction. The appeals court did not agree and upheld the conviction. The court upheld both the decision to give the “first aggressor” instruction and the decision to decline to give the “multiple assailant” instruction. Regarding the “first aggressor” instruction, which informed the jury that if they found that Sullivan had provoked the altercation that ended with her needing to act in self-defense, Sullivan could not claim a legal defense of self-defense, the evidence in the case warranted giving the jury such an instruction. Both men testified that Sullivan threatened to punch one man, and Bohannon testified that she did punch him. If the prosecution has evidence that is “words only,” that cannot block a defense of “self-defense.” However, words and physical acts can be enough to constitute the sort of instigation needed to defeat a claim of self-defense.

With regard to the “multiple assailants” instruction, the failure to give that instruction was not a problem because it was essentially overlapping with other information the judge had already given the jury. In Sullivan’s trial, the judge explained self-defense by stating that “force is lawful when a person ‘reasonably believes that he or she is about to be injured in preventing or attempting to prevent an offense against the person, and when the force is not more than is necessary.’” That instruction encompassed injuries inflicted by one assailant or more, and there were no other instructions that were inconsistent with this. This meant that there was nothing in the instructions that impaired Sullivan from fully litigating her claim of self-defense, which is what she would have needed to have secured a reversal.

When you or a loved one stands trial, there are many facets to defending yourself. There are pre-trial elements, the interviewing of witnesses, the presentation and admission of evidence, and other issues like jury instructions. To give yourself a strong defense of your rights, talk to the Tacoma assault attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC. Our attorneys have many years of experience defending the accused at all phases of the process and are here to help you with your case. The first consultation is free.