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Lesser Included Offenses, Jury Instructions, and Getting Your Conviction Overturned in Washington

On Behalf of | Dec 21, 2016 | Assault

A recent opinion from the Washington Court of Appeals offers an important reminder about the significance of lesser included offenses in a criminal trial. In this recent case, a man was able to get a conviction overturned because fourth-degree assault was a lesser included offense, but the trial judge refused to give the jury the instruction on fourth-degree assault that the accused man requested.

Charles Bluford stood trial for several violent attacks on women. The state charged him with multiple counts of first-degree robbery, first-degree rape of one victim, and the crime of “indecent liberties” related to another victim. At trial, the man asked the judge to give the jury an instruction on fourth-degree assault, which he argued was a lesser included offense within indecent liberties. The trial judge refused to issue the instruction. The jury convicted Bluford on all of the charges, except one of the robbery counts.

Bluford appealed his conviction. He raised multiple challenges, but one of the more successful ones was his attack on the trial judge’s failure to give the fourth-degree assault instruction to the jury. The appeals court, in agreeing with the man on this argument, pointed out that “instructing juries on lesser included offenses “is crucial to the integrity of our criminal justice system.” To uphold this integrity, it is important for trial judges to err on the side of issuing a jury instruction on a lesser included offense and to provide the instruction whenever “the jury could find that the defendant committed only the lesser included offense.”

The law in Washington creates two criteria for establishing when a lesser included offense jury instruction is appropriate. If “each of the elements of the lesser offense is a necessary element of the charged offense,” and if “the evidence in the case supports an inference that the lesser crime was committed,” the judge should issue the instruction.

The trial court had refused to issue the requested jury instruction because that court concluded that fourth-degree assault was not a lesser included offense of indecent liberties, based upon the mental state requirement of each crime. The appeals court rejected this assessment, following the reasoning of a previous ruling comparing fourth-degree assault to second-degree child molestation. In that case, as in this one, the trial court refused to issue the instruction, and the convicted man successfully appealed. The evidence that the state brought forward in Bluford’s case could have led a reasonable jury to conclude that Bluford committed an unlawful touching that was harmful or offensive but that the man’s purpose was not sexual (as was required for a indecent liberties conviction). This meant that fourth-degree assault was a lesser included offense, and the trial judge erred in not giving the jury instruction.

When you or a loved one stands trial, it is vital to have experienced Washington criminal counsel on your side who is familiar with your case as well as the law. The knowledgeable Tacoma criminal defense attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC have zealously defended the rights of the accused for many years and are ready to help with your defense. The first consultation is free.