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Washington Court Explains the First Aggressor Instruction in Assault Cases

On Behalf of | Sep 23, 2020 | Assault

Physically attacking someone often constitutes a crime. Specifically, in Washington, it may be grounds for assault charges. While engaging in physically violent behavior is generally unlawful, a defendant that is acting in self-defense might be found not guilty. If the State can show that the defendant was the first aggressor, however, the jury may be advised that self-defense is not available as a defense. In a recent Washington assault case, the court discussed the first aggressor exception to self-defense and when it applies. If you are accused of committing assault, it is prudent to meet with a trusted Washington assault defense attorney to evaluate your possible defenses.

Facts of the Case

It is reported that the defendant had a contentious relationship with the alleged victim, due to the fact that the defendant believed the victim had stolen one of his guns. At one point, the victim fired shots at the defendant’s house, and a bullet nearly struck the defendant in the head. There is conflicting evidence as to whether the victim threatened to kill the defendant. Approximately four years later, the defendant was at a gas station when he saw the victim sitting in a car in the parking lot.

It is alleged that the defendant fired multiple shots at the car and ultimately killed the victim. The defendant was charged with numerous counts of first-degree assault as well as first-degree murder. At trial, the jury was given the first-aggressor instruction. The defendant was found guilty as charged, after which he appealed. The appellate court reversed the conviction, stating that the first aggressor charge relieved the State of proving the defendant committed the alleged acts. The State then appealed.

The First Aggressor Instruction

The primary issue on appeal was whether the first aggressor instruction was warranted. The court explained that the use of force is justified and lawful, where the defendant has a reasonable and subjective belief that the victim intends to cause imminent harm. Evidence regarding self-defense must be evaluated from the standpoint of a reasonably prudent person, standing in the shoes of the defendant with the defendant’s knowledge. If the defendant meets this burden of proof that he or she acted in self-defense, the State must prove the absence of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

Generally, an aggressor or a person who provokes a physical altercation cannot claim self-defense. This is because the victim of the aggressor uses lawful force. Thus, the force defended against must be unlawful for self-defense to be a valid alibi. As the first aggressor instruction impacts the defendant’s self-defense claim, it should be used with care. In the subject case, the court found that there was sufficient evidence to support a first aggressor instruction. As such, the defendant’s conviction was reinstated.

Speak with a Skillful Criminal Defense Attorney

In some instances, even if a defendant engaged in acts that may meet the elements of a crime, he or she will nonetheless be able to offer a compelling defense. If you are charged with assault, the skillful Washington assault defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Smith & White have the knowledge and experience needed to help you strive for just results, and we will fight tirelessly on your behalf. We can be contacted via our online form or at 253-363-8662 to set up a meeting.