New York Appellate Lawyer

48 Wall Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10005

Federal Criminal Appeals Throughout The United States and
New York State Criminal Appeals.

Located at 48 Wall Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY! 1-800-APPEALS (277-3257)

Self Defense: Charge To The Jury Requires Sufficient Evidence


criminal appeals lawyer, jury instructions, sufficient evidence, self defense

U.S v. Feather

United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

2014 WL 4803128

Decided on: September 29, 2014

Jury Instructions And Justification Defense Requires Sufficient Evidence

Blog by: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer

Issue: Whether the District Court erred when it refused to allow a jury instruction of self-defense when Defendant claimed he disemboweled the unconscious victim because he claimed he was faced with an imminent threat of physical harm.

Summary: Defendant and his cellmate had an argument that resulted in the cellmate’s death. At trial, Defendant asked to present his

testimony in support of self-defense; the Judge declined to instruct the jury on self-defense, concluding as a matter of law, the Defendant failed to support each element of the defense with some evidence. Defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit where it was affirmed.

See Also: Sinking The Boat Of Exculpatory Evidence: The First Circuit Goes On A Fishing Expedition Looking To Excuse The Government’s Bad Faith Destruction Of Evidence.

Holding: The Seventh Circuit held that the District Court did not err when the Judge declined to instruct the jury on self defense because there was no evidence that the victim was imposing an imminent threat of harm or deadly force when he laid unconscious on the cell floor and Defendant sliced into his abdomen with the razor.

A Defendant is entitled to a jury instruction if, among other things, the instruction reflects a theory that is supported by the evidence, and the failure to include the instruction would deny the Defendant a fair trial.

The Seventh Circuit held that in order to offer a defense of self-defense, a Defendant must, as a condition precedent, establish that he faced an imminent threat and had no reasonable legal alternatives to avoid that threat.

Facts: Defendant Cleveland “White Feather” and his cell mate Robert “Running Bear” got into an argument, which resulted in Bear’s death. Feather wanted to keep the lights on to finish writing a letter while Bear wanted the lights off. Feather claims that Bear came at him brandishing a blade and his intent was to “kill him”.

In Feather’s initial statement to FBI, Feather stated that he rendered Bear into a chokehold until he was unconscious and while he was unconscious, he retrieved a razor and cut open his abdomen. At trial, the District Court reserved its ruling and allowed Defendant to present his testimony in support of self-defense. At the close of evidence, the Judge declined to instruct the jury, concluding that the victim was not imposing an imminent threat of harm or deadly force and the jury found him guilty.

On Appeal, Defendant argues that the District Court erred when it refused to instruct the jury on self-defense. The Court of Appeals affirmed and found a lack of evidence of an imminent threat.

Legal Analysis: The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that they review de novo a District Court’s refusal to allow a jury instruction on a defendant’s theory of defense.

The Seventh Circuit held that a Defendant is entitled to a jury instruction if, among other things, the instruction reflects a theory that is supported by the evidence, and the failure to include the instruction would deny the Defendant a fair trial. United States v. Jackson, 598 F.3d 340, 345 7th Cir. 2010.

The District Court may properly refuse a jury instruction on an affirmative defense if the Defendant has failed to support each element of the defense with some evidence. United States v. Tokash, 282 F.3d 962, 969 7th Cir. 2002.

In this case, at trial, the District Court reserved its ruling and allowed Defendant to present testimony in support of self-defense at trial. At the close of evidence, the judge declined to instruct the jury on self-defense, concluding, as a matter of law, that the victim was not imposing an imminent threat of harm or deadly force when he laid unconscious on the cell floor and Defendant sliced into his abdomen with the razor.

The Seventh Circuit held that in order to offer a defense of self-defense, a Defendant must establish that he faced an imminent threat and had no reasonable legal alternatives to avoid that threat. Tokash, 282 F.3d at 969-71. Self-defense is a viable legal justification only if the Defendant was faced with an actual, imminent threat of physical harm. This is so even in prisons where threats and violence are common.

The Seventh Circuit held that they recognize three “lesser evil” defenses that may justify otherwise unlawful action: duress, necessity, and self defense. United States v. Haynes, 143 F.3d 1089, 1091 7th Cir. 1998. Each of these defenses rests on the belief that a person facing harm is justified in performing an act, otherwise illegal, less injurious than the impeding loss. To warrant a jury instruction on a lesser-evil justification defense, the Defendant must present evidence that he faced actual, imminent harm and had no reasonable legal alternatives to avoid it.

The Seventh Circuit held that imminence is an essential element for self-defense because the threatened harm may, in fact, be avoidable. If the threat is not imminent, a retreat or similar step avoids injury. Significantly, the Court held that a Defendant’s subjective belief that he had no available legal alternatives—even if objectively reasonable—is not enough to proceed with a justification defense if the evidence is insufficient to establish an actual, imminent threat of physical harm.

Here, the District Court held that Defendant lacked evidence of an imminent threat. The Seventh Circuit held, even if the victim was the initial aggressor, he was unconscious when Defendant dragged him out from the bed and attacked him with the razor. An unconscious adversary does not pose an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm. The Seventh Circuit held, by Defendants own account, the victim was still unconscious when he dragged him out from the bed and cut his abdomen open. That alone defeats the claim of self-defense.

            The Seventh Circuit held that Defendant also failed to present evidence that he had no alternatives to the use of deadly force. A Defendant seeking to justify his actions as a lesser evil must avail himself of reasonable legal alternatives to the use of unlawful force.

The Seventh Circuit noted that Defendant had several legal alternatives to the use of deadly force. The Court held that the cell was equipped with a duress button, and the Government presented ample evidence about the operation of the duress signal and how it was designed to require prison guards to respond to the source of the alarm.

The Seventh Circuit held that the Officer on duty that night testified that the unit was very quiet and if an inmate yelled or banged on his cell door, a guard would hear and immediately respond. Also, during any of the several periods of time when the victim was unconscious, Defendant could have yelled or banged on the cell door and asked for help but simply did not. Because no evidence supports Defendant’s claim of self-defense, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the District Court properly refused to instruct the jury on the defense.


Related Articles