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State v. O'Bryan

Supreme Court of Connecticut

September 15, 2015

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
LATASHA R. O'BRYAN

Argued December 2, 2014

Page 399

Information charging the defendant with the crimes of assault in the second degree and attempt to commit assault in the first degree, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven and tried to the jury before Moore, J.; verdict and judgment of guilty, from which the defendant appealed.

SYLLABUS

Convicted, after a jury trial, of assault in the second degree and attempt to commit assault in the first degree in connection with the stabbing of the victim, the defendant appealed, claiming that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on the law of self-defense. At trial, the defendant testified that, although she and the victim had previously agreed to a fight without weapons, the victim had attacked her with a sharp object. The defendant further testified that, as a result, she had drawn a knife and stabbed the victim in self-defense. On appeal, the defendant claimed that the trial court improperly instructed the jury that, to prevail under a theory of self-defense, the defendant was required to have an " honest" or " sincere" belief that deadly physical force was going to be used against her, that the defendant was required to demonstrate that she had actual knowledge that the victim had violated the terms of their combat by agreement, and that the defendant retained the burden of proof once the state asserted a theory of combat by agreement.

Held :

1. Contrary to the defendant's claim, the trial court's instructions regarding the nature of the subjective belief required by the defendant was an accurate statement of the law governing self-defense that did not mislead the jury; the well established usage of the terms " honest" and " sincere" were consistent with the requirement that the defendant actually believed that the use of deadly force was necessary.

2. The state could not prevail on its claim, raise as an alternative ground for affirmance, that any instructional error relating to combat by agreement was harmless because the defendant, as a participant in a combat by agreement, was precluded by statute (§ 53a-19 [c]) from relying on the justification of self-defense in the use of physical force as a matter of law; a combat by agreement exists only when there is a mutual agreement to fight on equal terms for purposes other than protection and, therefore, the agreement required under § 53a-19 (c) (3) does not exist when one party unilaterally and dangerously escalates the previously equal terms of a fight.

3. The defendant could not prevail on her claim that the trial court improperly instructed the jury that she was required to " actually know," rather than reasonably believe, that the victim had escalated the fight to the use of deadly force; the instruction given by the trial court did not misstate the law of self-defense, as it was consistent with the overarching standard for self-defense claims, under which objective reasonableness is considered only if the defendant subjectively perceived the need for self-defense at the time of the altercation.

4. Contrary to the defendant's claim, the trial court's instructions to the jury properly articulated the state's burden of proof with respect to self-defense, generally, and combat by agreement, specifically; the trial court repeatedly instructed the jury that the state bore the burden of disproving self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt as a general matter, that the state bore the burden of proving the statutory disqualifiers, including combat by agreement, and that the defendant had no burden of proof at all.

Neal Cone, senior assistant public defender, for the appellant (defendant).

Sarah Hanna, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael Dearington, state's attorney, and Laura DeLeo, assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa and Robinson, Js. ROBINSON, J. In this opinion ROGERS, C. J., and PALMER, ZARELLA, EVELEIGH and McDONALD, Js., concurred. ESPINOSA, J., concurring in part.

OPINION


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