In May of 2019, Ohio amended its self-defense law. Previously, a defendant had the burden of proving self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence. After the amendment, the defendant still has the burden of producing some evidence tending to show self-defense, but after this, the burden shifts to the State to prove lack of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.
Interpreting the revised statute, Ohio’s Court of Appeals for the 10th District recently found that a trial court did not err in refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense or the related castle doctrine.
In State v. Collins, the defendant was charged with aggravated murder. At trial, a neighbor of the defendant testified that he had heard and seen the defendant, Collins, arguing with another man. Collins was slowly approaching the other man, who backed away. Collins eventually drew a gun and shot him twice. Video footage from a security camera on the street showed that Collins had in fact fired four times, but was otherwise largely consistent with the witness’ testimony.
The defendant testified that he shot the victim, DeSean Bonet, in self-defense. Collins admitted that he sold marijuana out of his home. He claimed that on the night of the incident, he was sitting on his front porch, waiting for a friend to arrive to buy marijuana from him. Bonet, who he had never met before, approached him on the porch and asked if he was selling marijuana. Collins testified he was suspicious of Bonet, because he had never met him before, it was the middle of the night, and Bonet kept one hand in his pocket, as if holding a gun. He claimed Bonet then pushed him against the front door and grabbed the bag of marijuana from his pocket. Fearing for his life, Collins claimed he drew his gun, and fired at the ground, in order make Bonet release him. He claimed that as Bonet ran away, he still kept one hand inside his pocket. Worried that Bonet had a gun and would fire back at him, Collins kept shooting. Collins testified on cross-examination that he only shot in Bonet’s general direction, and had not intended to hit him, but was only trying to make Bonet run far enough away that he himself could safely retreat into his house.
The trial court denied Collins’ motion for jury instructions on both self-defense and the castle doctrine. The jury returned a guilty verdict.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. It held that because Collins testified he was not aiming directly at Bonet, he could not claim self-defense. Citing one of its earlier opinions, the Court held “ by its terms self-defense presumes intentional, willful use of force . . . thus, when an individual testifies that they did not intend to cause harm such testimony prevents the individual from claiming self-defense.”
Does this rule make sense? If the doctrine of self-defense protects someone who shoots to kill, why should it not also protect someone who fires a warning shot? Someone who fires in another person’s general direction can do so willfully, as self-defense requires.
The court also cited to State v. Herrington from the 9th District supporting this holding. However, that case discussed the self-defense doctrine in a different context. The defendant in Herrington argued on appeal that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a jury instruction on self-defense. Because the defendant testified that he did not intend to hurt anyone, and that he did not in fact cause anyone serious physical harm, the court held a self-defense claim would have been unsupported, and it was therefore not ineffective assistance of counsel not to request the instruction. A holding that it was not ineffective assistance to fail to request the instruction, when the defendant did not actually cause anyone serious physical harm has little persuasive value in determining whether a defendant who did request the jury instruction was entitled to one, in a case in which he killed someone, but claims self-defense. Also, Herrington was decided in 2010, when the defendant still bore the burden of proof for self-defense. Therefore, even if the analysis of the self-defense issue within the context of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim had any persuasive value in a case addressing self-defense directly, Herrington would still not control, since it addressed a different standard for proving self-defense; a defendant who did not have a viable self-defense claim under the law as it existed in 2010 might have a viable claim in 2020.
In this case, the decision may have been harmless error, since all evidence showed the victim was running away when he was shot. Still, the 10th District’s rule is confusing. I am curious to see if this issue comes up again, and how another court would address it.