WHAT IS CONSIDERED REASONABLE IN SELF-DEFENSE?

In Commonwealth v. White (2024), the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed a defendant’s conviction of the crime of assault and battery on a family or household member, holding that the jury should have been instructed on self-defense, and further holding that the prosecutor should not have introduced into evidence a copy of a restraining order that the alleged victim obtained against the defendant, or her testimony that she obtained said order.

The facts that the jury heard were that the defendant and his then girlfriend had been together for approximately fifteen years, that they got into an argument, and that there was violence.  The alleged victim testified that the defendant kicked her out of their apartment, and that when she returned, he attacked her, knocking her down and strangling her.  She also testified that she obtained a restraining order against the defendant the next day.

The defendant testified that the alleged victim threatened him with a bottle, hit him with a dog leash, and appeared to be reaching for a knife.  The further testified that he felt threatened by this, and that in response he pushed her and grabbed at her jacket around the neck area.

At the conclusion of the trial, defense counsel requested that the judge instruct the jury on self-defense, but the judge denied the request.

The jury instructions for self-defense using non-deadly force are as follows:

To prove that the defendant did not act in self-defense, the Commonwealth must prove one of the following things beyond a reasonable doubt:

First, that the defendant did not reasonably believe he (she) was being attacked or immediately about to be attacked, and that his (her) safety was in immediate danger; or

Second, that the defendant did not do everything reasonable in the circumstances to avoid physical combat before resorting to force; or

Third, that the defendant used more force to defend himself (herself) than was reasonably necessary in the circumstances.

Criminal Model Jury Instructions, Instruction 9.260.

In reversing the defendant’s conviction, the Appeals Court held that it was reversible error for the judge not to give the requested instruction on self-defense, since – in cases involving non-deadly force:

a defendant is entitled to a self-defense instruction if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant without regard to credibility, supports a reasonable doubt that (1) the defendant had reasonable concern for his personal safety; (2) he used all reasonable means to avoid physical combat; and (3) the degree of force used was reasonable in the circumstances, with proportionality being the touchstone for assessing reasonableness.

Com. v. King, 460 Mass. 80, 83 (2011).

Once the issue of self-defense is raised, it becomes the prosecution’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.

The Appeals Court held that given the testimony of the defendant, and the fact that defense counsel requested that the jury be instructed on self-defense, the judge’s failure to so instruct the jury constituted an error requiring reversal of the conviction.

The Appeals Court also held that it was error for the judge to admit into evidence testimony by the alleged victim that she obtained a restraining order against the defendant, as well as a copy of the restraining order itself.  However, because the failure to instruct on self-defense was by itself enough to reverse the conviction, the Appeals Court did not need to decide whether the improper evidence would have also required reversal.

Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan

The Law Offices of Kevin D. Quinlan

2 S. Main Street, Suite 201

P.O. Box 248

Uxbridge, MA  01569

(508) 723-6384

attorneyquinlan@gmail.com

attorneyquinlan.com

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