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Criminal Practice – Jury Instructions – Self-Defense – Castle Doctrine – Stand Your Ground Doctrine

Criminal Practice – Jury Instructions – Self-Defense – Castle Doctrine – Stand Your Ground Doctrine

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The trial court erred when it instructed the jury, and there was a reasonable possibility of a different result had the trial court correctly instructed the jury.

We vacate the trial court’s judgment and remand for a new trial.

Defendant appealed from judgment after a jury convicted her of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. On appeal, defendant argued the trial court erroneously instructed the jury by including an instruction on the prohibition of excessive force. We agree.

Defendant argued the trial court’s jury instruction incorrectly stated the law by including language explaining the excessive-force prohibition. Defendant contended North Carolina General Statute section 14-51.2, which is colloquially known as the Castle Doctrine, provides her with a rebuttable presumption that deadly force is authorized, and since no force exceeds deadly force, excessive force is impossible where the State fails to rebut the presumption. We agree with defendant.

When the trial court conclusively stated that “[D]efendant does not have the right to use excessive force,” the trial court concluded that the State rebutted the Castle Doctrine presumption. But whether the State successfully rebutted the Castle Doctrine presumption was for the jury to decide, as a matter of fact, and the remainder of the equation was a matter of law. If the jury determined the question of fact—whether deadly force was authorized because the State failed to rebut the presumption—in the affirmative, defendant, as a matter of law, did not use excessive force when she shot the victim.

The trial court could have instructed the jury this way: If the State rebutted the Castle Doctrine presumption, defendant could not use excessive force to protect herself; but if the State failed to rebut the presumption, the proportionality of defendant’s force was irrelevant. Therefore, the trial court erred by categorically stating that defendant “d[id] not have the right to use excessive force.” If this case only concerned the Stand Your Ground Doctrine, the excessive-force instruction may have sufficed. But because this case concerns the Castle Doctrine, the excessive-force instruction was erroneous.

Further, by stating that defendant “d[id] not have the right to use excessive force,” it is probable that the trial court confused the jury. Indeed, shortly after the trial court instructed the jury, a juror asked the court if it could “repeat the last,” to which the court replied, “[i]t is confusing.” A special verdict form may have helped the jury discern the nuanced issues arising from the different self-defense doctrines. Because the trial court’s instruction was both erroneous and confusing, there is a reasonable possibility that the jury would have reached a different result if it received a proper instruction. Therefore, defendant was prejudiced by the instruction and is consequently entitled to a new trial.

Vacated and remanded.

State v. Phillips (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-185-23, 16 pp.) (Jeff Carpenter, J.) Appealed from Cumberland County Superior Court (James F. Ammons Jr., J.) Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorneys General John P. Barkley & Hyrum J. Hemingway, for the State. Reece & Reece, by Mary McCullers Reece, for defendant-appellant. North Carolina Court of Appeals

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