Justices order new attempted murder trial after jury instruction ‘dilutes’ self-defense standard

The Indiana Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of attempted murder and handgun charges, finding an erroneous jury instruction diluted the standard for claiming self-defense.

Justice Mark Massa authored the unanimous opinion Friday in Anthony Gammons, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 20S-CR-22.

In that case, Anthony Gammons and his 10-year-old son encountered Derek Gilbert outside the home of Gammons’ cousin. Gilbert had been previously charged with murder, so Gammons “was put on edge” when Gilbert “immediately started accosting him.”

Gilbert eventually squared up to Gammons, began pulling at his waistband and asking Gammons if he was “casket ready.” In response, Gammons drew the handgun he was openly carrying and shot at Gilbert, who still did not relent. Gammons claimed he feared for his life and his son’s, but he stopped shooting when Gilbert finally retreated. During the altercation, Gammons said, Gilbert repeatedly reaching in his pants “like he was grabbing for something.”

At his ensuing trial for attempted murder and carrying a handgun without a license, Gammons conceded he did not have a license for the gun but claimed he acted in self-defense. The jury, over Gammons’ objection, was instructed that “‘a person may not use force if,’ among other things, ‘he is committing a crime that is directly and immediately related to the confrontation,’” which would include carrying an unlicensed gun.

Gammons was convicted, and the carrying verdict was merged with attempted murder. The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld his conviction, holding, without deciding the question of error, that any error in the jury instruction was harmless.

But in reversing both lower courts, the Indiana Supreme Court pointed to its prior ruling in Mayes v. State, 744 N.E.3d 390 (Ind. 2001). There, the justices, interpreting Indiana Code § 35-41-3-2, held that “there must be an immediate causal connection between the crime and the confrontation” to preclude a self-defense claim.

“Gammons contends that the trial court erred by instructing that he could not assert self-defense if he was ‘committing a crime that [wa]s directly and immediately related to the confrontation.’ …,” Massa wrote. “We agree – the instruction … was an imprecise statement of law. By instructing that the crime and confrontation must be merely ‘directly and immediately related,’ the instruction weakened the causal connection required to preclude a claim of self-defense.

“… Justice (Theodore) Boehm’s concurrence in Mayes presaged this diminution of the standard, warning that the Court – by rephrasing that the ‘evidence must show that but for the defendant committing a crime, the confrontation resulting in injury to the victim would not have occurred’ – left open circumstances where a ‘defendant should be free to claim self-defense.’ …,” Massa continued. “We now concur with Justice Boehm: ‘this ‘but for’ test is too broad.’ … Since this ‘but for’ test can impede the defense in the same unjust and absurd ways as a literal reading of the statute, we reject that rephrasing and reiterate that self-defense is barred only when there is ‘an immediate causal connection between the crime and the confrontation.’”

Here, the instructional error could have been the basis of the jury’s guilty verdict against Gammons, the court continued. Thus, unlike the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court determined the error was not harmless.

“We do not pass judgment today on whether Gammons acted in self-defense when he shot Gilbert,” Massa concluded. “That is a question for the jury, which may yet reject this justification. But we cannot categorically bar those jurors from considering the defense when a crime is merely ‘related to’ or connected to’ a confrontation — rather, as we held in Mayes, there must be an immediate causal connection between the two.

“Because we cannot conclusively determine that the verdict would have been the same absent this instructional error, we reverse and remand for a new trial.”

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