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

On Behalf of | Nov 7, 2018 | Assault

Under Washington law, self-defense is a valid defense to an assault charge. If a jury is not properly instructed on the law regarding self-defense, however, a defendant may be improperly convicted. In Washington v. Backemeyer, the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington overturned the Defendant’s conviction for assault and granted him a new trial after finding the defense counsel performed deficiently in failing to ensure the jury received a proper self-defense instruction, which was prejudicial to the Defendant. If you face assault charges, it is essential to your case to retain an attorney who is well-versed in the defenses to the crime you are charged with and can adequately convey the defenses to the jury. You should consult a seasoned Washington assault defense attorney to discuss your options.

Facts of the Case

Allegedly, in Backemeyer, the Defendant was in a bar when he was asked to leave by an individual who identified himself as a bouncer. The Defendant told the bouncer to leave him alone and began pushing the bouncer, after which the bouncer pushed the Defendant to the floor and got on top of him. The Defendant, who was significantly smaller than the bouncer, pulled out a knife and began cutting the bouncer. The Defendant was subsequently charged with first-degree assault with a deadly weapon. During the trial, the Defendant testified he was afraid of being seriously injured and was acting in self-defense, and that he did not know the bouncer was a bar employee.

Reportedly, the jury received instructions regarding the elements of first-degree assault and self-defense. The self-defense instruction stated, in part, that it was lawful for a person to stand his ground and defend against an attack if he is in a place where he has a right to be and believes he is being attacked. The state argued in its closing argument that this instruction did not apply because the Defendant’s right to be in the bar had been revoked. The Defendant’s attorney countered in his closing argument that self-defense still applied even if the Defendant did not have a right to be in the bar. During deliberations, the jury submitted questions regarding whether the right to self-defense applied if the Defendant did not have a lawful right to be there or whether illegal acts negated the right to self-defense. Both the state and the Defendant’s attorney agreed the jury should be directed to read its instructions. Defendant was subsequently convicted of first-degree assault, which he appealed.

Ruling of the Supreme Court of The State of Washington

On appeal, Defendant argued, in part, that he was denied effective assistance of counsel when it was clear the jury did not understand the instruction regarding self-defense and his attorney did not provide the jury with any clarity. The court noted to prove ineffective assistance of counsel the Defendant must show his attorney’s performance was below the standard of reasonableness and it prejudiced the Defendant. Here, the court found the Defendant’s attorney’s behavior constituted ineffective representation, as the jury’s questions concerned self-defense and Defendant’s counsel made no effort to answer the questions. The court noted the trial court was required to make sure the jury understood the law and therefore, would have been required to comply with a request to explain self-defense to the jury.

Further, the court noted that the Defendant’s argument that his actions were lawful depended on the jury’s understanding of self-defense, and that if the jury had adequately understood self-defense, it might not have convicted the Defendant. As such, the court found the Defendant’s counsel’s inadequate performance to be prejudicial to the Defendant. Based on the preceding, the court reversed the trial court’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

Confer with an Experienced Washington Criminal Defense Attorney

If you are charged with assault, you should confer with an experienced assault defense attorney to analyze the facts of your case and determine any available defenses. The seasoned criminal defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Smith and White have the knowledge and experience necessary to assist you in obtaining a favorable outcome. Contact our offices at 253-363-8662 or via the online form to set up a consultation.