Does A Judge Have To Define All The Terms Of A Jury Instruction?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Beard, 220 Kan. 580, 552 P.2d 900 (1976).
This case addresses the following issues:
- Is it an error for the court to fail to identify which party is the aggressor when instructing the jury on the defense of self-defense?
- When, if ever, may a party go into new areas during a redirect examination?
This case arises from a conviction for two counts of murder. Id. at 580. The Defendant challenge his convictions based on improper admission of physical evidence, failure to properly identify the aggressor in the jury instructions, and the trial court’s allowance of a redirect of a witness to explore matters not covered on cross-examination. Id. at 581. The court found the arguments concerning physical evidence to be without merit. Id. at 584. The court also found that the instruction was proper, despite speaking only in terms of an “aggressor,” because it was clear from the context of the case who the initial aggressor was. Id. at 582. Further, based upon the limited record produced for the court, it appeared that the defense had opened the door to the challenged portion of the redirect of an investigating officer. Id. at 583.
The Defendant here suffered from a drug problem. Id. at 581. He had sold some drugs to a married couple, which caused a negative reaction to the wife. Id. The husband confronted Defendant and a fist-fight ensued. Id. Defendant was badly beaten by both the husband and one of the couple’s friends. Id. Defendant returned to the couple’s apartment later that evening. Id. The husband and friend gave chase to Defendant as the wife ran to a neighbor’s apartment to call the police. Id. A brawl again broke out, at which point both the husband and friend were eventually shot and killed by Defendant. Id. Defendant argued that he had been attacked and wrestled the firearm away from the husband, shooting the men in self-defense. Id. The jury convicted the Defendant of second-degree murder for each death. Id.
The court began with the challenged jury instructions. Id. at 581-82. The Defendant had challenged the instruction that read: “A person is justified in the use of force to defend himself against an aggressor’s imminent use of unlawful force.” Id. The Defendant argued that the instruction was ambiguous, and allowed the jury to confuse the Defendant for the aggressor. Id. The court found this argument unpersuasive, based upon the instruction as whole (it only made sense that the Defendant would need to invoke the defense, not the victims) and on the fact that it was up to the jury to determine which man was the aggressor. Id. at 582.
The court then moved on to the issue of testimony that exceeded the proper scope of redirect. Id. at 582-83. The court noted that, on redirect, “a witness may be asked questions to clarify or modify statements made on cross-examination, or to explain matters brought out on cross-examination.” Id. at 583. The court expressed frustration with the incomplete record provided, but found enough in the brief record to show that the Defendant had “opened the door” to the challenged testimony on his cross-examination by asking about the location of the bodies. Id. The fact that the testimony on redirect not only rebutted the cross-examination, but also went towards strengthening the State’s case did not matter: the Defendant had placed the matter at issue, and the State had simply pounced on the opportunity presented. Id. The court also summarily dismissed two challenges to the admission of physical evidence, affirming the convictions of the Defendant. Id. at 584.
Get your questions answered - call for a free,
20-minute phone consultation (913) 451-9500.