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Ninth Circuit Reverses Denial of Habeas Relief Based Upon Erroneous Self-Defense Jury Instruction

Last month, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in Dixon v. Williams, directing the federal district court to grant the criminal defendant a writ of habeas corpus that requires the State of Nevada to either release the defendant from custody, or initiates a new trial for the defendant relative to his second-degree murder conviction.

The criminal charges arose from an altercation between the defendant and his two younger brothers, and the victim and the victim’s friends that began in a parking lot of a Las Vegas night club. There, the victim kicked the defendant’s girlfriend’s vehicle and screamed obscenities at her, and then at the defendant, after the vehicle hit the victim’s arm when backing up. The victim pulled a box cutter out of his pocket, but a club security officer intervened, grabbing the victim’s arm and preventing him from using it.

The defendant’s group left the parking lot and drove to the Palms Hotel and Casino. The victim’s group followed them, making threatening gestures through the vehicle windows. When they arrived at the Palms, a fist fight began between members of the two groups, and someone from the victim’s group threw rocks at the defendant. The victim brandished the box cutter again, swinging it at the defendant and threatening that he was going to “cut your face off,” and repeatedly threatened to kill him. There was evidence that the victim also stated, “You can dodge this knife, but you can’t dodge these bullets.” The victim then returned to his vehicle and entered it from the passenger door, leaving the door open. The defendant returned to his vehicle, got a gun, ran to the victim’s vehicle, and shot him four times, killing him.

At trial, the jury was instructed on the elements of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Because the defendant claimed that the shooting occurred in self-defense, the jury also received an instruction on the law of self-defense. That instruction read, in relevant part: “An honest but reasonable belief in the necessity for self-defense does not negate malice and does not reduce the offense from murder to manslaughter” (emphasis added).

It was undisputed that the italicized word “reasonable” should have read “unreasonable.” After being convicted of second-degree murder with a deadly weapon and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, the defendant appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court. That court affirmed the conviction, noting that although the jury instruction was erroneous, it was a harmless error, because, based on the totality of the evidence at trial and the other instructions the jury received, the error could not have substantially prejudiced the jury’s deliberations and verdict.

The defendant then filed a habeas corpus petition in the federal district court, claiming that the State was holding him in custody as a prisoner in violation of the United States Constitution, based upon the jury instruction error and the second-degree murder conviction that resulted. The district court denied the petition, and the defendant appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit held that the error in the self-defense jury instruction reduced the State’s burden of proof for convicting the defendant of murder instead of voluntary manslaughter. Under Nevada state law, an “honest but reasonable belief in the necessity for self-defense” could in fact contribute to reducing a murder charge to manslaughter, by helping to establish the requisite provocation described to the jury in the voluntary manslaughter instruction. However, because the jury was erroneously instructed that such a belief does not reduce the offense from murder to manslaughter, the type of provocation that could give rise to manslaughter was “improperly limited,” and made it easier for the prosecution to convict the defendant of the greater offense of murder.

Additionally, the Ninth Circuit determined that the error was not harmless, because it “had a substantial and injurious influence on the jury’s verdict.” The court concluded:

In short, although there was also evidence to the contrary, there was considerable evidence the jury could have credited that [the defendant] had acted with adequate provocation, even though he could not establish the elements of the defense of self-defense and thereby avoid conviction for the killing altogether. … Thus, but for the erroneous jury instruction, the jurors reasonably may have convicted on the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter instead of second-degree murder.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the petition for writ of habeas corpus, and remanded the matter for the defendant to either be released from the State’s custody or afforded a new trial.