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The Evidence You Need for a Self-Defense Instruction in Washington

On Behalf of | Nov 14, 2016 | Assault

A spilled beer at a bar escalated to a physical conflict and ultimately led to a customer’s stabbing of a guard. In the customer’s assault trial, he argued unsuccessfully for a jury instruction about self-defense. The Washington Court of Appeals upheld the decision not to issue the instruction. The law requires the defendant to have evidence of three things in order to warrant the instruction, and this defendant had none of the three.

In the case, the defendant, Edilberto Guzman-Morales, was partying at a nightclub in Whatcom County when a security guard approached Guzman-Morales about a disturbance, and the customer indicated that someone had spilled his beer. The guard made various attempts to persuade Guzman-Morales to go outside. Eventually, a few feet from the club’s entrance, Guzman-Morales stabbed the guard. According to the guard, this stabbing prompted him to put Guzman-Morales in a chokehold. Police arrived and arrested Guzman-Morales.

At the customer’s trial for assault with a deadly weapon, there was a dispute about exactly when in the altercation the customer stabbed the guard. The guard testified that the defendant stabbed him, and that led to the chokehold. The video evidence appeared to show the defendant striking the guard on the hip, which was inconsistent with the guard’s wound location (his right inner thigh). Based upon this, Guzman-Morales asked the trial judge to, in instructing the jury, include an instruction for self-defense. Based upon the conflicting evidence, the jury could reasonably conclude that the defendant did not stab the guard until after the guard put him in a chokehold, which meant the jury should be allowed to consider self-defense.

The trial judge rejected this request, though, and the jury found the man guilty. On appeal, the conviction stood. The appeals court offered a clear explanation of what it takes to trigger a self-defense instruction at trial. Defendants must provide some credible evidence that indicates self-defense. This evidence must show three things: to justify using a deadly weapon in self defense.  First, that the accused feared he was in “imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.” Second, that this fear was “objectively reasonable.” And third, that the accused used only as much force as was “reasonably necessary.”

The defendant in this case lacked that kind of evidence. He needed evidence establishing that he stabbed the guard after being placed in the chokehold. The mere fact that the video was not clear in showing the stabbing taking place before the guard administered the chokehold did not mean that it affirmatively showed the version of events that the defendant claimed in support of a self-defense instruction. Guzman-Morales needed some evidence that the guard placed him in a chokehold first, that the chokehold gave him an objectively reasonable fear for his life, and that stabbing the guard was reasonable force. He failed to produce this evidence, so he fell short of the requirement for a self-defense instruction. If Mr. Guzman-Morales had testified to these facts it would have significantly changed the analysis in his case.

If you or a loved one is facing a criminal trial in Washington, it is important to understand the evidence you’ll need to win the case. To put on a strong defense, talk to the Pierce County and Tacoma criminal defense attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC. Our attorneys have spent many years representing those who have been accused of crimes. Call for an analysis of your case and a quote.