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Washington Court Discusses Lesser Offense Instruction in Criminal Cases

On Behalf of | Mar 30, 2021 | Assault

Many crimes have degrees, and a defendant charged with one crime may ultimately be found guilty of a less serious offense that carries reduced penalties. Thus, in many instances, a defendant will request that the jury receive a lesser included offense instruction in hopes of avoiding a conviction for the more serious charge. A lesser included offense instruction is not appropriate in every case, but if a trial court errs in determining that such an instruction is not warranted, it may constitute grounds for reversing a conviction, as demonstrated in a recent Washington ruling issued in an assault case. If you are charged with an assault offense, it is in your best interest to speak to a trusted Washington assault defense attorney as soon as possible to assess your options.

The Alleged Assault

It is reported that the defendant lived with the victim, who was his girlfriend. The couple got into an argument, and the defendant pushed the victim to the ground. While the exact details of what transpired after that are disputed, the defendant admitted that he pinned the victim to the wall. The victim stated that he strangled her and dragged her through the apartment. The defendant was charged with second-degree assault by means of strangulation and fourth-degree assault. During his trial, he asked for a lesser included offense instruction for the fourth-degree assault charge. The court denied his request, and he was convicted on both counts. He then appealed, arguing the trial court erred in denying his request.

Lesser Included Offense Instructions

Pursuant to Washington law, a defendant is entitled to a lesser included offense instruction if every element of the lesser included offense is a necessary element of the charged offense, which is referred to as the legal prong, and if the evidence in the case supports an inference that the defendant committed the lesser offense crime, which is known as the factual prong. The court explained that while the applicable test was still valid, recent rulings had caused confusion as to whether the factual prong required evidence that only the lesser included offense was committed, to the exclusion of the greater crime.

The defendant argued that the ruling requiring exclusion of the greater crime misconstrued the relevant test and should be overturned. The court ultimately disagreed with the defendant, finding that a proper understanding of the case law requiring the exclusion of the charged offense did not modify the applicable test. The court explained, though, that a defendant is still entitled to a lesser included offense instruction in cases in which a jury could not reasonably find that the defendant only committed the lesser included offense. The court noted this was such a case, and therefore vacated the conviction and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

Meet with a Dedicated Criminal Defense Attorney in Washington

Assault crimes range in degrees, and convictions for more serious offenses can result in significant penalties. If you are accused of an assault offense, it is advisable to speak to a lawyer regarding your rights. The dedicated criminal defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Smith & White can assist you in formulating a strong defense to help you seek the best outcome available under the facts of your case. You can contact us through our online form or by calling 253-363-8662 to set up a meeting.