STATE v. LATASHA R. OBRYAN, SC 19336

Judicial District of New Haven

 

      Criminal; Whether Jury Properly Instructed on Self-Defense and on "Illegal Combat by Agreement" Exception to Self-Defense.  The state charged the defendant with attempted assault in the first degree and assault in the second degree.  It alleged that the defendant and Lawanda McCrea agreed in advance to engage in a fistfight but that, at the time of the fight, the defendant pulled out a knife and stabbed McCrea in the chest.  The defendant claimed that McCrea unexpectedly pulled out a box cutter and that she reacted in self-defense.  In its instructions to the jury, which tracked the judicial branch's model jury instructions, the trial court stated that one instance in which a person is not justified in using any physical force in self-defense is when the physical force is the product of an "illegal combat by agreement."  It further stated that this exception to self-defense, however, would not apply if the jury found that McCrea violated the agreement to fight by using force that exceeded the terms of the agreement and that the defendant knew of McCrea's violation.  The court also instructed that in order for the defendant to successfully invoke self-defense, the jury had to find that she had an actual belief, which it defined as an honest and sincere belief, that the degree of force she used was necessary to defend herself.  The jury rejected the self-defense claim and the defendant was convicted as charged.  She appeals, claiming that the jury instructions on the illegal combat by agreement exception to self-defense were incorrect because they provided that the exception would not apply if the jury found that she "knew," rather than reasonably believed, that McCrea had violated the agreement.  She argues that she did not have to know that her adversary had escalated the combat beyond the terms of the agreement in order for the exception to be inapplicable, but had to have only reasonably believed that to be the case.  She also argues that the court improperly failed to instruct the jury that if she pointed to evidence showing that the illegal combat by agreement exception did not apply, the state had the burden of disproving that evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.  Moreover, the defendant claims that the court improperly instructed the jury that, in order for her to show that she acted in self-defense, she had to have an "honest and sincere belief" that she was in danger and that the degree of force she used was necessary.  She asserts that this "honest and sincere belief" language is not found in the self-defense statute and gave the state another unauthorized way to disprove her self-defense claim.