Who Carries The Burden Of Proof For Self-Defense?

Posted on by Steven W. Thayer, PS

On behalf of Steven W. Thayer, P.S. Criminal Defense Attorney on Saturday, May 11, 2019.

Many criminal cases may rely, in whole or in part, on testimony that could include conflicting accounts of what may have occurred. So-called, “he said-she said,” disputes may be part of the evidence that juries must weigh. However, there are other aspects to a criminal trial that a strong defense lawyer knows how to address. Many people know that the prosecution has the burden to prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden helps to ensure, not only a fair trial, but also to avoid our justice system from becoming some form of a kangaroo court.

In State v. Acosta, a man and a woman met in a bar in Portland and later decided to drive to Vancouver in the woman’s car. They parked in an alley and allegedly smoked some marijuana. At some point, the man could not find his wallet. He believes the woman had taken his wallet. When he confronted her about it and threatened to call police. He says the woman attacked him and tried to choke him with his tie. She had a different story, claiming that the man attacked her and tried to rape her.

Jury Instructions Are Important For A Fair Trial

In the trial court, criminal defense lawyer Steven W. Thayer requested that the jury be instructed that the state has the burden to prove that the man did not act in self-defense to return a guilty verdict. The trial court denied the request and instructed the jury that self-defense is a complete defense to the charged crime—assault in the second degree.

While the court explained that if the jury found the man acted in self-defense based on the evidence, then they must return a verdict of not guilty. But the jury was not required to analyze the evidence considering the prosecutor’s burden of proof. In essence, the jury instruction shifted the burden of proof to the defendant – relieving the government from its duty to prove an element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Washington Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision. The Washington Supreme Court decided to hear the case.

Taking It Up The Supreme Court of Washington

On appeal to the high court, Criminal defense attorney Steven W. Thayer argued that the burden of proof is critical to a person’s right to a fair trial when self-defense is an issue. Courts in Washington have found that the legislature has shown its intent that the person accused of any of a number of crimes must prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence. However, Mr. Thayer pointed out that self-defense is handled differently. In fact, self-defense is explicitly recognized as a lawful act under the law. Therefore, the act of self-defense may serve to negate a specific element of a crime.

The defendant was accused of second-degree assault. That crime requires the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused knowingly inflicted grievous bodily harm. Therefore, the government is constitutionally required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly committed the unlawful act. It is the prosecutor’s burden to prove that the defendant did not act in self-defense. The Washington Supreme Court agreed and reversed the conviction. The criminal defense argument clarified and shaped the law regarding self-defense in Washington.

Trial Skills Also Require Detailed Legal Analysis

A strong criminal defense may require more than the ability to present a compelling defense before the jury. While solid preparation for trial, the skill to elicit testimony and cross examine witnesses, as well as provide compelling arguments before the jury are vital trial skills, a solid defense may also require thorough legal analysis of the law and constitutional principles. As today’s story highlights, a skilled criminal defense lawyer should have the skill to stand between the power of the government and the accused – standing guard to ensure that constitutional rights are not eroded to the detriment of all people.

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