Indiana’s highest court says the phrase “reasonably believes” in the state’s self-defense statute requires a person to have subjective belief that force was necessary to prevent serious bodily injury and that actual belief was one any reasonable person would have had under the circumstances.
The Indiana Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision Wednesday afternoon in Philip Littler v. State of Indiana, No. 71S03-0704-CR-151, reversing a ruling by St. Joseph Superior Judge Roland Chamblee Jr.
The case involves a gun and knife fight between two teenage brothers in December 2004. Eighteen-year-old Neal Littler went to his grandmother’s house to visit his brother, Philip, and the two got into an argument. Fighting escalated, Neal threatened Philip with a knife pulled from a kitchen drawer, and Philip eventually pulled a handgun and fatally shot Neal in the head.
He was originally charged with voluntary manslaughter and possession of a handgun, but later charges were amended to include murder. Littler claimed self-defense, but at trial the judge excluded testimony from the mother regarding Neal’s prior conduct. He received a 50-year sentence for murder. The Court of Appeals affirmed in a memorandum opinion in December, and the justices granted transfer.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court noted that an abrupt movement by Neal prompted Philip to fire the handgun from about three feet away because of a thought his brother would stab him; this belief was fueled by Philips awareness of previous incidents where his brother had stabbed people and also that he was in a manic state at the time. A 14-year-old cousin also confirmed the story, the justices pointed out, and the mother’s testimony should have been allowed for the same reason.
Authoring Justice Brent Dickson wrote that excluding her testimony was not a harmless error, as the state contended.
“The mother’s testimony confirming Neal’s numerous prior stabbings, his mental condition, and his history of violent behavior would be very probative and relevant to the jury’s evaluation of the objective reasonableness of Philip’s belief that he needed to use force against Neal and would also lend credibility to (his) assertions,” the court wrote. “We cannot conclude that the exclusion of the mother’s testimony did not affect Philip’s rights. The harmless error doctrine does not apply here, and we reverse Philip’s conviction.”
This reversal applies to the murder conviction, and a new trial is now ordered in St. Joseph Superior Court.