November 18, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Heat of Passion Jury Instruction Impermissibly Lowered Prosecution’s Burden of Proof

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Tardif on Thursday, November 2, 2017.

Jury InstructionsBurden of ProofHeat of Passion ProvocationAttempted Second Degree MurderFirst Degree AssaultMitigating FactorEvidenceDue ProcessSelf-DefenseDeadly Physical ForceSlow Motion VideoUnfair Prejudice—Prosecutorial Misconduct.

Tardif’s friend Soto was at a skate park and got into an argument with the victim. Tardif and Soto were members of the same gang, and the victim was wearing the colors of a rival gang. Soto called Tardif, and when Tardif arrived, Tardif and Soto walked up to the victim and Tardif shot him once in the abdomen. The victim fled and survived. Other people in the skate park recorded video of part of the initial argument between Soto and the victim as well as the shooting. A jury found Tardif guilty of attempted second degree murder, first degree assault, conspiracy to commit first degree assault, and three crime of violence counts.

On appeal, Tardif argued that the trial court erred by not instructing the jury that the prosecution had the burden to prove the absence of heat of passion provocation beyond a reasonable doubt. Heat of passion provocation is a mitigating factor for attempted second degree murder and first degree assault. Here, the heat of passion provocation instructions failed to inform the jury that the prosecution had to prove the absence of heat of passion provocation beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the instructions, considered together, failed to properly instruct the jury on the prosecution’s burden of proof. Because Tardif presented sufficient evidence for a heat of passion provocation instruction, the error lowered the prosecution’s burden of proof and violated Tardif’s constitutional right to due process. Tardif also argued that the trial court’s self-defense instructions included several reversible errors. Self-defense is not an affirmative defense to conspiracy to commit first degree assault, and therefore, the court did not err in failing to instruct the jury that it was. But the trial court erred by instructing the jury on when deadly physical force may be used in self-defense because deadly physical force requires death, and here the victim did not die.

Tardif additionally argued that the trial court erred by admitting slow motion video recordings of the shooting. Although this evidence was relevant to explain the events around the shooting and to determine whether defendant acted with aggression or in self-defense, the probative value of the slow motion recordings was very low. This evidence was also cumulative of the real-time recording that was also admitted. Further, because Tardif’s state of mind at the time of the shooting was a disputed issue, the slow motion recordings’ low probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. The slow motion recordings may have portrayed Tardif’s actions as more premeditated than they actually were. The trial court abused its discretion by failing to weigh the slow motion recordings’ probative value against their danger of unfair prejudice.

Tardif further argued that two statements by the prosecutor during closing argument constituted misconduct and required reversal. The court of appeals did not doubt the reliability of Tardif’s conspiracy conviction and concluded that the prosecutor’s allegedly improper statements did not constitute plain error.

The conspiracy to commit first degree assault conviction was affirmed. The remaining convictions were reversed and the case was remanded with directions.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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