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Washington Court of Appeals Reverses Conviction Due to Lack of Jury Instruction on Self-Defense

On Behalf of | Nov 6, 2016 | General Defense Info

If you or a friend or relative has been accused of a crime, there are many things about which to concern yourself in the criminal trial. One of these is ensuring that your case includes all of the defenses allowed by the law, possibly including self-defense. You are entitled to request that your jury receive an instruction on self-defense if there is enough evidence in your case to create a reasonable possibility that your actions were in self-defense. As a recent Washington Court of Appeals decision makes clear, it doesn’t matter if the evidence that potentially raises the issue of self-defense comes from your case or the prosecution’s case. If the evidence is validly before the court, and it raises the possibility that you acted in self-defense, the jury should be instructed on self-defense.

In this case, the facts were arguably a bit unusual in that the person who called 911 and who suffered the most serious injuries was the one standing trial. Lisa Thysell believed her daughter, Ashley Calkins, had stolen her gun. Thysell walked to her daughter’s home, and, in the doorway to the daughter’s trailer, the two women scuffled. At some point, Calkins bit Thysell’s finger off. Calkins received only scratches that did not bleed. Ultimately, though, the state charged Thysell with burglary and fourth-degree assault–domestic violence.

At Thysell’s trial, the deputy who had responded to the scene following Thysell’s 911 call testified. He stated that Thysell gave a statement in which she accused Calkins of being the instigator. The deputy testified that, in Thysell’s recorded statement, she claimed that Calkins pushed her first, that she only grabbed Calkins to avoid falling on a set of steps, that Calkins bit her after she grabbed the daughter, and that only after that did the daughter and she exchange punches.

Based upon the evidence presented to the jury, Thysell’s lawyer asked the judge to give an instruction regarding the law of self-defense. The prosecution argued that the judge should not give such an instruction, since none of the evidence of self-defense came from the defense but instead from the state’s case. Agreeing that only the prosecution had offered proof of self-defense, the trial court refused to give the instruction.

The jury convicted Thysell on the assault charge, and she appealed. In her appeal, the mother renewed her argument that the trial court was wrong not to give a self-defense instruction to the jury. The appeals court agreed. The court acknowledged that the law governing situations like this one was not clear, and it used Thysell’s case as an opportunity to clarify the law. In the appellate case, the state argued that existing case decisions had already concluded that, in order to “be entitled to a jury instruction on self-defense, the defendant must produce some evidence demonstrating self-defense,” and this language made it clear that, unless the defense offered proof of self-defense, the accused person was not entitled to the instruction.

None of the cases cited by the state, though, actually addressed the question that existed in Thysell’s case — namely, whether a trial judge must ignore evidence of self-defense presented in the prosecution’s case when deciding whether or not to give a self-defense instruction. Such a practice would not be consistent with the way Washington criminal trials work. The rules clearly state that each side “is entitled to the benefit of all of the evidence, whether or not that party introduced it.”

Based upon this standard, Thysell was clearly entitled to a self-defense instruction. There was evidence in her case that her daughter shoved her first and that she grabbed the daughter only to avoid falling down the stairs, that the daughter used this grabbing incident to bite her mother’s finger off, and that this biting triggered the remaining fisticuffs. This proof could leave a reasonable jury with doubts about who started the fight and whether or not Thysell was just defending herself. The failure to give the instruction was an error that required the reversal of the conviction.

In a criminal trial, it is important to present all of your evidence and ensure that all of your available defenses are asserted. Experienced Washington criminal defense counsel can help you in this endeavor. The Tacoma criminal defense attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC have a long track record of defending the accused and presenting strong arguments on their behalf. Call us today at 253-363-8662 to schedule your initial consultation. The first consultation is free.