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United States v. Britt.

No. 22-7012. 8/31/2023. E.D.Okla. Judge Briscoe. Self-Defense Jury Instruction—Imperfect Self-Defense Jury Instruction—Appropriateness of Sanctions.

August 31, 2023

Britt house-sat for his father Gary and his wife Judy one weekend while they were away on a trip. Britt spent the entire weekend drinking alcohol. When Gary and Judy returned, they found Britt outside of their house wearing only underwear. Shortly thereafter, Gary and Britt argued inside the house about Britt’s failure to properly care for the house. The altercation became physical, and Britt ultimately swung a katana—a type of sword—at Gary, injuring him. Gary later died of his wounds. Britt was indicted with one count of murder in the first degree in Indian Country. Before trial, Britt’s counsel submitted proposed jury instructions that included separate instructions on self-defense and imperfect self-defense. The district court overruled Britt’s proposed instructions on grounds that the court’s own instructions encompassed the points that defense counsel’s instructions were trying to make. The district court also stated that it found counsel’s imperfect self-defense instruction confusing. Britt’s counsel conceded that the proffered instruction was confusing and asked the district court to give the jury a less confusing and legally correct imperfect self-defense instruction. At the conclusion of the evidence, the district court instructed the jury on the charged offense and on the lesser included offenses of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The district court also instructed the jury on the defenses of voluntary intoxication and self-defense. A jury found Britt guilty of first-degree murder as alleged in the indictment, and the district court sentenced him to life imprisonment.

On appeal, Britt argued that the district court reversibly erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the imperfect self-defense theory. As an initial matter, the Tenth Circuit concluded that Britt’s proffered imperfect self-defense instruction was legally incorrect and that the district court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to include it among the jury instructions. And it is undisputed that the jury instructions the district court gave did not address Britt’s proposed theory of imperfect self-defense. The Tenth Circuit thus analyzed whether the evidence was sufficient for a reasonable jury to find in Britt’s favor on that defense. Both perfect and imperfect self-defense require the defendant to subjectively believe that deadly force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm, but perfect self-defense requires that the defendant’s subjective belief also be objectively reasonable. If the defendant subjectively believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or others, but his belief was not objectively reasonable, he is not entitled to a complete acquittal but rather is guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Here, Britt testified that he was scared of Gary because Gary had threatened him many times before. Britt testified that Gary began insulting him as soon as he walked into the house, and when Britt attempted to get away by walking to his room, Gary immediately followed him into that room, grabbed him around his torso, and used his significant body weight to pin Britt against the dresser when he attempted to leave the room. Britt further testified that although he was able to pull away from Gary’s grasp, he believed that he “was either going to be able to escape or [he] wasn’t going to make it out of there.” Britt testified that this belief led him to grab the katana, swing it twice at Gary, and then escape the room. Accordingly, Britt was entitled to have the jury decide whether he subjectively believed that he faced an imminent risk of death or great bodily harm from his father and, if so, whether such belief was objectively reasonable (self-defense) or unreasonable (imperfect self-defense). Therefore, the district court abused its discretion by denying Britt’s counsel’s request for an imperfect self-defense instruction. Further, this error was not harmless.

The case was remanded with directions for the district court to vacate the judgment and conduct a new trial.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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