The Appellate Court recently released an opinion in State v. Abney [pdf]. Latoya Abney was tried for murder and manslaughter. She was acquitted of murder and convicted of manslaughter. She appealed claiming that the trial court had incorrectly excluded evidence supporting her claim of self-defense and that exclusion was not harmless.
Abney’s former boyfriend, McLeod, came over to her house to gather his belongings. As she lay on her couch, he slapped her. Subsequently, while he was in the bedroom packing, she went into the kitchen and picked up a steak knife. She went into the bedroom and an argument ensued. Jones, a friend of McLeod’s, was sitting outside watching TV and heard Abney ask McLeod to get off of her. McLeod noticed that Abney had a knife and like all sensible people would do, hit her. The altercation progressed and eventually Abney struck him in the chest with the kinfe and he later died.
At her trial, she testified that McLeod had attacked her on a previous ocassion McLeod had struck and kicked her in the stomach while she was pregnant, and that he had bitten her on the shoulder, causing injuries for which she required emergency medical attention. She sought to introduce medical reports regarding this previous incident. The state sought to have them excluded on hearsay grounds, but the court excluded them because they weren’t the "best evidence". During closing argument to the jury, the prosecutor suggested that the defendant had fabricated the claim of self-defense. The prosecutor also put at issue whether the prior incident of abuse ever occurred. The defendant appealed after her conviction.
The defendant argued that the medical records should have been admitted at trial to show (1) her subjective perception that McLeodâ€™s physical aggression was likely to cause her grievous bodily harm and (2) her state of mind at the time of the stabbing, thereby satisfying the subjective/objective standard of self-defense.
The Appellate Court concluded that the trial court had incorrectly applied the "best evidence" rule to the medical records because the authenticity of the documents was not in question. The proferred evidence was, however, relevant to the defendant’s claim of self-defense. The Court also held that the evidence was not cumulative when offered to corroborate the defendant’s testimony. The Court writes,
A cursory review of the law regarding self-defenseamply demonstrates the relevance of the proffered evidence. â€˜â€˜Under our Penal Code, self-defense, as defined in [General Statutes] Â§ 53a-19 (a) . . . is a defense,rather than an affirmative defense. . . . That is, [thedefendant] merely is required to introduce sufficientevidence to warrant presenting his claim of self-defenseto the jury. . . . Once the defendant has done so, it becomes the stateâ€™s burden to disprove the defensebeyond a reasonable doubt. . . . As these principles indicate, therefore, only the state has a burden of persuasion regarding a self-defense claim: it must disprove the claim beyond a reasonable doubt.
â€˜â€˜It is well settled that under Â§ 53a-19 (a), a person may justifiably use deadly physical force in self-defense only if he reasonably believes both that (1) his attacker is using or about to use deadly physical force against him, or is inflicting or about to inflict great bodily harm, and (2) that deadly physical force is necessary to repel such attack. . . . [Our Supreme Court] repeatedly [has] indicated that the test a jury must apply in analyzing the second requirement, i.e., that the defendant reasonably believed that deadly force, as opposed to somelesser degree of force, was necessary to repel the victimâ€™s alleged attack, is a subjective-objective one. The jury must view the situation from the perspective of the defendant. Section 53a-19 (a) requires, however,that the defendantâ€™s belief ultimately must be found to be reasonable. . . .
â€˜â€˜The subjective-objective inquiry into the defendantâ€™s belief regarding the necessary degree of force requires that the jury make two separate affirmative determinations in order for the defendantâ€™s claim of self-defense to succeed. First, the jury must determine whether, on the basis of all of the evidence presented, the defendant in fact had believed that he had needed to use deadly physical force, as opposed to some lesser degree of force, in order to repel the victimâ€™s alleged attack. . . . If . . . the jury determines that the defendant in fact had believed that the use of deadly force was necessary, the jury must make a further determination as to whether that belief was reasonable, from the perspective of a reasonable person in the defendantâ€™s circumstances.â€™â€™ (Citations omitted; emphasis in original; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Clark, 264 Conn. 723, 730â€“32, 826 A.2d 128 (2003).
(bold emphasis mine).
The Court went on to hold that the exclusion of this evidence did not constitute harmless error. The Court reversed and remanded for a new trial.
All in all, a well reasoned decision by the Appellate Court. It is has a quick, but concise explanation of the basics of self-defense law in CT.