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Adrian T. v. United States

February 28, 2013

ADRIAN T. LEE, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF1-12693-09) (Hon. Gerald I. Fisher, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell, Senior Judge:

(Argued January 30, 2013

Before GLICKMAN and OBERLY, Associate Judges, and FARRELL, Senior Judge.

A jury found appellant guilty of voluntary manslaughter as a lesser included offense of the charged crime of second-degree murder, and of carrying a dangerous weapon. The charges arose from the stabbing death of Chiagbanwe Ukaoma (Chi). Appellant‟s defenses at trial, both submitted to the jury on instructions, were self-defense and defense of a third person, Donald Branch. On appeal, appellant argues that the trial judge erroneously, and prejudicially, instructed the jury that Branch must have had the right to defend himself in the circumstances -- regardless of "the circumstances as they appeared to [appellant]" -- for the defense of another person to be available to him. Although some ambiguity in our leading decision on this point may have influenced the trial judge, we hold that the challenged instruction was erroneous and that, because the error was prejudicial as we explain in part III, infra, appellant is entitled to a new trial at which the important perspectival aspect of the right to defense of a third person is correctly explained to the jury.

I.

The stabbing in question took place outside a carryout restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C. On the heels of a verbal confrontation outside the carryout, appellant‟s friend Donald Branch began a fistfight by "suckerpunch[ing]" Jachinma Ukaoma in the face. Other Ukaoma family members, including Obinna and Chi, ran to Jachinma‟s aid, and "[e]verybody started fighting" as two other men -- including appellant -- joined Branch‟s side of the fray. It was undisputed that at some point during the fight, appellant stabbed Chi Ukaoma fatally through the heart with a pocketknife. Beyond that, the parties offered sharply different versions of the events.

According to government witnesses, appellant had barely joined the fray when he pulled a pocketknife and tried to stab Jachinma in the stomach. Jachinma escaped to a nearby truck to retrieve a weapon, but when he returned Chi lay on the ground wounded, and the brief fight was over. Branch, testifying for the government, admitted that he had started the fight and exchanged repeated punches with Chi and Obinna. Although hit twice by fists from behind and knocked down at one point, he got up and held his own in the further exchange (he "kn[e]w how to fight real good"), sustaining only facial wounds that required no medical treatment. A passerby, Kirk Williams (a civilian police department employee), witnessed the fight in which the combatants all used fists and were "just swinging," until a tall guy wielding a sharp silver object -- inferentially appellant -- "came straight downward with it toward a man being pummeled." None of the Ukaomas saw Chi being stabbed, but Obinna heard Chi call his name as if needing help as Chi fought with appellant. When Obinna pulled appellant off of Chi, appellant stood up and yelled, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Chi ran a short distance and fell, fatally wounded by a single, three-and-a-half to four-inch knife stab through the heart.

According to appellant‟s very different testimony, Branch had been arguing verbally with Jachinma when appellant saw two men emerge from a parked truck and rush toward Branch. Appellant stepped in front of them to protect Branch, declaring "[t]his is going to be a one-on-one fight." With his back turned to Branch and Jachinma, appellant did not see which of them threw the first punch, but as the two fought their way around the front of the parked truck, he followed them, his view obstructed momentarily. When he reached them, Branch was on the ground with four men hitting him and "crushing" him, and was bleeding from the mouth and nose. Appellant pulled out a pocketknife to scare the men off of Branch, afraid they would kill his friend. As he warned the assailants to get off, he himself was struck on the back of the head by a fist, then by a blow from a second man. Defending both himself and Branch ("they [were] beating [Branch] bad"), he swung his right hand around and stabbed someone, then fled the scene and dropped the knife into a trash can, panicking because he had never stabbed anyone before.

At trial, appellant asserted both self-defense and defense of a third person. The jury rejected both defenses, and on appeal he assigns no error concerning self-defense. He challenges as erroneous and prejudicial the judge‟s instructional limitation -- making Branch‟s own right to self-defense pivotal -- on appellant‟s right to assert the defense of another.

II.

The right to defend a third person is analogous to the right of self-defense, and like self-defense, can provide a complete defense to criminal charges. "Every person has the right to use a reasonable amount of force in defense of another person if (1) s/he actually believes that the other person is in imminent danger of bodily harm and if (2) s/he has reasonable grounds for that belief." CRIMINAL JURY INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ("Redbook"), No. 9.510,

Defense of a Third Person (5th ed. rev. 2010). As with self-defense, a person may use deadly force in defense of another person if he actually and reasonably "believes at the time of the incident that that person is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm from which s/he can save that person only by using deadly force against the assailant . . . ." Id. The Redbook instruction goes on to explain that the reasonableness of the defendant‟s belief in the need to use force in defense of another must be assessed "under the circumstances as they appeared to him/her at the time of the incident." Id.*fn1

Over objection in this case, however, the trial judge instructed the jury that the reasonableness of appellant‟s belief that force was necessary to defend Branch depended finally, not on "the circumstances as they appeared to" appellant, but on whether Branch himself had the right of self-defense. The judge explained to the jury:

Now, as to defense of a third person, every person has the right to use a reasonable amount of force in defense of another person if he, one, actually believes that the other person is in imminent danger of bodily harm; two, he has reasonable grounds for that belief; and three, the other person has a right to self-defense. The question is not whether looking back on the incident, you believe that the use of force was necessary. The question is whether Adrian Lee, under the circumstances as they appeared to him at the time of the incident, actually believed that the person he was seeking to ...


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