Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sixth Circuit reverses conviction where district court refused to instruct the jury on the justification defense

In an unpublished decision today, United States v. Clark, No. 11-5347, the Sixth Circuit reversed the defendant's felon-in-possession conviction on the ground that the district court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the justification defense.

The court explained, "Clark's prosecution stemmed from an evening in Paris, Tennessee, that went terribly wrong." As bad as things turned out, they could have gone much worse.

Clark was at a dance club with his girlfriend when another man grabbed her on the buttocks. Clark confronted the man, a confrontation ensued, and everybody was ushered outside. The man then told his friends to "get the car ready" and approached Clark with his hand inside his jacket. Clark ducked behind a car as shots were fired, one of which whizzed by clark's neck. Clark then ran back inside the dance club, where the DJ lifted his shirt, revealed a gun, and told Clark to take it for his protection. Clark then left the club again, and was trying to flee the area when the police arrived and arrested him.

Clark was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). At his trial, he admitted the above facts and the existence of a prior felony.

 The only issue was whether he was justified to possess the handgun. At the close of the evidence, however, the district court refused to instruct the jury on the justification defense and instead told jurors to disregard testimony relating to self defense or justification.

Explaining that an affirmative defense merely needs to "find[] some support in the evidence and in the law" in order for a defendant to be entitled to a jury instruction, and that "[t]his burden is not a heavy one," the Sixth Circuit reversed.

The court emphasized that Clark merely had to present "some support" for each of the elements of a justification defense, and that his evidence "may even be 'weak or of doubtful credibility.'" Those elements are as follows:
(1) "that defendant was under an unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of such a nature as to induce a well-grounded apprehension of death or serious bodily injury";
(2) "that defendant had not recklessly or negligently placed himself in a situation in which it was probable that he would be forced to choose the criminal conduct"'
(3) "that defendant had no reasonable legal alternative to violating the law, a chance both to refuse to do the criminal act and also to avoid the threatened harm";
(4) "that a direct causal relationship may be reasonably anticipated between the criminal action taken and the avoidance of the threatened harm";
(5) that defendant "did not maintain the illegal conduct any longer than absolutely necessary."
Because there was "some support" for each of these elements, the justification instruction was required.

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