It is common for a person charged with assault to argue that he or she was acting in self-defense. A defendant that successfully establishes that he or she merely committed the alleged acts to protect his or her self may be able to avoid a conviction. Self-defense only excuses a response to an illegal use of force, however. Thus, in many cases, the State will argue that the defendant initially instigated an altercation, and created the need to act in self-defense. In a recent case, the Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3, explained when a jury instruction that the defendant was the initial aggressor of an argument is appropriate in assault cases. If you live in Washington and are charged with an assault offense, it is prudent to meet with a skillful Washington assault defense attorney to discuss your potential defenses.
Facts and Procedure of the Case
Allegedly, the defendant and his victim live in the same building and had prior confrontations. Then, in December 2017, the defendant approached the victim and began punching him. The defendant then strangled the victim, reportedly out of fear that the victim would use the knife he regularly carried to stab him. Several witnesses observed the incident. When the police arrived, the defendant admitted he started the altercation, and that he strangled the victim. He was charged with second-degree assault by strangulation. Following a trial, a jury convicted the defendant. He then appealed on several grounds, including the argument that the trial court committed an error in providing a first aggressor instruction to the jury.
First Aggressor Instruction
Under Washington law, a defendant charged with assault can argue that his or her acts were taken in self-defense. The self-defense argument is only available, however, in cases in which the defendant’s actions were taken in response to the unlawful use of force. In other words, a person who instigates a confrontation, thereby provoking the person to act in self-defense, is not responding to unlawful force and will not be found to be acting in self-defense. Thus, a first aggressor instruction is appropriate in cases in which there is credible evidence that would allow a jury to reasonably conclude the defendant provoked the need for the victim to act. The instruction is also appropriate in cases in which there is a dispute as to who began an altercation.