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COA: Judge erred in giving jury instruction

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A Jefferson Superior judge erred in giving a jury an instruction on a lesser included offense of domestic battery because there wasn’t a serious evidentiary dispute about whether the battery was committed in the presence of children, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Thursday.

George Michael True appealed his conviction of Class A misdemeanor domestic battery. He was charged with, among other things, Class D felony domestic battery for going to his ex-wife’s apartment and attacking her while his children and another minor relative were staying there. He claimed he couldn’t have been the one to attack her because he was at church and that his ex-wife had the children lie about hearing him and seeing him attack her to influence an ongoing custody battle between the two.  

At the state’s request and over True’s objection, the trial court instructed the jury that it could convict True of Class A misdemeanor domestic battery, which doesn’t require the battery to occur in the presence of a child, as a lesser included offense of the Class D felony domestic battery. The jury convicted him of Class A misdemeanor domestic battery.

In Watts v. State, 885 N.E.2d 1228, 1232-33 (Ind. 2008), the Indiana Supreme Court held that it is reversible error for a trial court to give a lesser included offense instruction at the request of the state in the absence of a serious evidentiary dispute distinguishing the lesser offense from the greater. The COA found that the Watts court’s observations apply in True’s case – the propriety of a defendant’s “all-or-nothing” defense strategy and how such a defense can be improperly undermined by the state obtaining a lesser included offense instruction where the evidence doesn’t warrant it. The Supreme Court also has expressed concern over the possibility of a jury entering a “compromise” verdict.

True pursued an “all-or-nothing” defense strategy, noting conflicting evidence whether he was even at his ex-wife’s apartment the morning she was battered. The evidence was conflicting only on whether True committed any battery at all, not on whether the crime was committed in the presence of children as defined in the domestic battery statute, wrote Judge Michael Barnes in George Michael True v. State of Indiana, No. 39A04-1102-CR-37.

“… we conclude there clearly was no serious evidentiary dispute about whether the battery was committed in the presence of children. Either there was a domestic battery committed in the presence of children, or there was no battery at all. Instructing the jury that it could convict True of Class A misdemeanor domestic battery instead of Class D felony domestic battery improperly invited the jury to reach a ‘compromise’ verdict,” he wrote.

The COA reversed True’s conviction and remanded for further proceedings.
 

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