May 20, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Trial Court Erred By Refusing Self-Defense Instruction for Reckless Manslaughter Charge

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. McClelland on Thursday, January 15, 2015.

Reckless Manslaughter—Self-Defense—Jury Instruction—Burden of Proof—In Life Photographs—Evidence.

Defendant’s father and the victim were involved in a physical altercation. Defendant pulled a gun out of his father’s backpack and shot the victim seven times, killing the victim. The jury found defendant guilty of reckless manslaughter.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred by not giving the jury a “self-defense law instruction” on the charge of reckless manslaughter.Instruction Number 19, which addressed the applicability of self-defense to the reckless manslaughter count, directed the jurors not to apply Instruction Number 18, which explained the legal meaning of self-defense. Therefore, the jurors received no guidance as to the meaning of self-defense with respect to the offense of reckless manslaughter. This cast serious doubt on the fairness of defendant’s conviction. Because the error was seriously prejudicial and obvious, it constituted plain error. Accordingly, defendant’s conviction was reversed and the case was remanded for retrial.

Defendant also contended that the trial court erred by placing the burden on him to prove self-defense to the charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.Here, the trial court did not err. Defendant had the burden of proving self-defense to the charges of reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

Defendant further argued that the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted three “in life” photographs depicting the victim participating in family events. In life photographs of homicide victims are not per se inadmissible; rather, their admissibility must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Here, the photographs were evidence of an undisputed fact—that the victim was alive prior to the shooting. Because the photographs had almost no probative value, and because the prosecutor sought to elicit the jury’s sympathy based on those photographs, the admission of the photographs unfairly prejudiced defendant and the trial court erred by admitting them. On retrial, the court should reconsider whether to allow in life photographs in light of the above discussion, and if so, how many, and whether to limit the prosecution’s comments about them so as to avoid the risk of unfair prejudice.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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