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Missouri Supreme Court Ends “Tortured History” for Self-Defense Jury Instructions and Clarifies When Self Defense is a Viable Defense

The Missouri Supreme Court addressed the use of a self-defense jury instruction in State v. Barnett. Barnett was charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action. On the night in question, Barnett and the Victim were both a bar. Throughout the night, Victim urged Barnett to go outside so the two could fight. Later in the evening, Victim approached Barnett in a threatening manner, and the two got into a physical altercation. The bartenders ordered both men to leave the bar. Before Barnett left, a friend gave Barnett back his knives the friend had been holding. After exiting the bar, Barnett stopped to urinate near a dumpster. At that time, Victim approached Barnett from behind and shouted threatening obscenities, such as “now you’re going to die you [expletive].” The two got into a physical altercation, and Barnett saw a “metal and shiny” object in Victim’s hand coming toward Barnett’s face. In response, Barnett testified he knocked Victim’s hand away, shoved Victim to the ground, and left the scene. A witness who saw the altercation from afar claimed he saw Victim “drop like a bag of rocks.” Shortly thereafter, Victim was lying on the ground, bleeding severely, and appeared to have several stab wounds. A few hours after the incident, police officers asked Barnett if he stabbed Victim in self-defense, but Barnett adamantly denied stabbing Victim at all.

During the jury instruction conference, Barnett offered a self-defense instruction. The state objected, claiming Barnett was not entitled to such an instruction because he denied committing the stabbing. The circuit court sustained the state’s objection, refused to submit a self-defense instruction and submitted an instruction for first-degree assault, along with a mitigating heat of passion instruction.

The jury found Barnett guilty of first-degree assault and armed criminal action, and Barnett was sentenced accordingly. Barnett filed a motion for new trial, arguing, among other things, the circuit court erred by refusing to submit a self-defense instruction. The circuit court overruled the motion for new trial. Barnett appeals.

The state claimed Barnett was not entitled to a self-defense instruction because Barnett expressly denied stabbing Victim. According to the state, Barnett was entitled to a self-defense instruction only if the evidence supporting the theory of self-defense was offered by the state or injected by the testimony of a third party. Because neither the state nor a third party introduced the issue of self-defense, the state argued Barnett was not entitled to the requested instruction.

The Missouri Supreme Court has long held if there is substantial evidence to support the theory propounded in the requested instruction, the court is required to submit that instruction to the jury. State v. Bidstrup, 237 Mo. 273, 140 S.W. 904, 907 (Mo. 1911). In making this determination, a court must view “the evidence in a light most favorable to the defendant[ ] in order to determine whether the evidence was sufficient to support and authorize instructions on the mentioned matters.” State v. Cole, 377 S.W.2d 306, 307 (Mo. 1964). Although the law on this issue was clear as early as 1911, see Bidstrup, 140 S.W. at 907, it has had a long and tortured history over the last century.

The Court concluded the inconsistency in the law has caused the state mistakenly to rely on cases holding an exception to the rule in Bidstrup exists when a defendant attempts to introduce his own testimony contrary to the requested instruction. Because no such exception exists, the state’s reliance on these cases is improper.

The Court held “the rule that a court is required to submit an instruction when there is substantial evidence to support it does not change when the defendant’s testimony contradicts the requested instruction. If the opposite were true, the court – not the jury – would be tasked with determining which version of the defendant’s statements to believe. This, of course, would be a usurpation of the jury’s fact-finding role.”  As a result, when the evidence supports two conflicting versions of events, even when both versions have been provided by the defendant, the court must refrain from determining which version is correct.

In coming to its conclusions, the Court examined where and how Missouri courts seem to carve out an exception to the rule handed down in Bidstrup. A thorough examination of the case law traces this exception back to dicta in this Court’s opinion in State v. Wright, 352 Mo. 66, 175 S.W.2d 866 (Mo. 1943). That dicta was incorrect because a defendant is entitled to every instruction where there is substantial evidence to support. Even if the evidence is conflicting statements of the defendant.

Any case holding to the contrary should no longer be followed.  As a result, the following cases were overturned:  State v. Wright, 175 S.W.2d 866, State v. Baker, 277 S.W.2d 627, State v. Peal, 463 S.W.2d 840, State v. Brown, 502 S.W.2d 295, Jones v. State, 495 S.W.3d 789, State v. Miller, 981 S.W.2d 623, State v. Houcks, 954 S.W.2d 636, State v. Tompkins, 632 S.W.2d 50, State v. Stubenrouch, 591 S.W.2d 42, State v. Sivils, 589 S.W.2d 617, State v. Walker, 525 S.W.2d 826, State v. Sherrill, 496 S.W.2d 321, State v. Avery, 120 S.W.3d 196, State v. Randolph, 496 S.W.2d 257, State v. White, 222 S.W.3d 297, State v. Eldridge, 554 S.W.2d 422.

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