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COA: man doesn't have to testify for self-defense instruction

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The Indiana Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for a man convicted of murder because the trial court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense without the defendant’s testimony.

In Larry Ault v. State of Indiana, No. 49A04-1008-CR-492, Larry Ault got into a heated argument with Andrew Parrish when Parrish and Donna Choate arrived at Ault’s home. The two came to confront Ault about money he owed after buying a radio from Parrish’s friend. Choate had to separate the men twice. When Parrish ripped off his coat, threw it in his truck and said he was going to beat up Ault now, Ault shot Parrish in the head and killed him.

At his trial, the trial court considered the permissibility of a self-defense jury instruction in the event that Ault didn’t testify. The trial judge concluded that the subjective standard of the self-defense argument couldn’t be satisfied without Ault testifying as to his perception of what was going on the day of the shooting. Ault then took the stand and was found guilty of murder.

Ault appealed the conclusion that prior to his testimony, the record lacked evidence of self-defense to support giving a self-defense jury instruction. At trial, Ault’s attorney asked whether the trial judge’s ruling meant that self-defense instructions were never available in cases where defendants didn’t testify, and the judge couldn’t answer that.

This issue hasn’t been precisely raised in Indiana, so the appellate judges relied on Hilbert v. Commonwealth, 162 S.W.3d 921, 924 (2005), from the Kentucky Supreme Court; and People v. Hoskins, 267 N.W.2d 417, 418 (1978), from the Michigan Supreme Court, to conclude a defendant doesn’t have to testify in order to receive a self-defense instruction as long as the defense is supported by the evidence.

In the instant case, the trial court found the fact that Parrish was on Ault’s property, he was shouting and threatening Ault with bodily injury, and had indicated he would attack Ault “now” was enough to establish the objective component of self-defense, wrote Judge Cale Bradford.

“Given the broad use in Indiana of circumstantial evidence to show an individual’s state of mind, and in light of Hilbert and Hoskins, we must conclude that these facts were similarly adequate to support a reasonable inference regarding the subjective component of self-defense, namely that Ault believed deadly force was necessary to protect himself. We therefore conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense without Ault’s testimony,” he wrote.

Denying the self-defense instruction on these facts was not a harmless error, so the appellate judges ordered a new trial.

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