Gammons v. State, No. 20S-CR-22, __ N.E.3d __ (Ind., Jun. 26, 2020).

Massa, J.

At his trial for attempted murder and carrying a handgun without a license, Anthony Gammons, Jr. asserted that he acted in self-defense. According to Gammons, he feared for his and his son’s lives when he shot the intoxicated and aggressive Derek Gilbert—testifying that he knew Gilbert had a history of violence and that Gilbert had threatened him— with a gun he acknowledged he was carrying illegally. After the court instructed the jury that he could not assert self-defense if he committed a crime that was “directly and immediately related” to his confrontation with Gilbert, the jury found Gammons guilty.

Indiana’s self-defense statute instructs that “a person is not justified in using force if the person,” among other things, “is committing . . . a crime.” Ind. Code § 35-41-3-2. But because “literal application” of that statute can lead to absurd results, we have held that “there must be an immediate causal connection between the crime and the confrontation.” Mayes v. State, 744 N.E.2d 390, 393, 392 (Ind. 2001). Because the jury instruction used here—that a crime and confrontation need only be “related” to defeat self-defense—diluted this causal standard, and because we can’t conclude that this instructional error was harmless, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

….

“A valid claim of self-defense is legal justification for an otherwise criminal act.” Coleman v. State, 946 N.E.2d 1160, 1165 (Ind. 2011). Although the self-defense statute instructs that a person cannot use force defending himself if he, among other things, “is committing . . . a crime,” Ind. Code §35-41-3-2, we do not strictly apply that statute because “[t]he legislature is presumed to have intended the language used in the statute to be applied logically and not to bring about an unjust or absurd result,” Mayes v. State, 744 N.E.2d 390, 393 (Ind. 2001). Instead, we have held that “there must be an immediate causal connection between the crime and the confrontation.” Id. at 394 (emphasis added). 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.” App. Vol. III, p.110 (emphasis added). [Footnote omitted.]

We agree—the instruction stemming from Pattern Jury Instruction 10.0300 was an imprecise statement of law. By instructing that the crime and confrontation must merely be “directly and immediately related,” the instruction weakened the causal connection required to preclude a claim of self-defense. While the pattern instruction uses the word “connected” instead of “related,” we view the court’s slight word revision as a distinction without a difference. Two events are related if they are “connected by reason of an established or discoverable relation” and are connected when they are “joined or linked together.” Related, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/ dictionary/related (last visited June 26, 2020); Connected, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ connected (last visited June 26, 2020). By requiring that the crime and confrontation just be joined or linked, neither “connected” nor “related” suggest the element of causation demanded by Mayes. Justice 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.” Mayes, 744 N.E.2d at 394 (majority opinion) (emphasis added), 396 (Boehm, J., concurring). We now concur with Justice Boehm: “this ‘but for’ test is too broad.” Id. at 396. Read literally, this formulation could foreclose the defense in an instance where a defendant’s crime was tenuously connected with the confrontation, like the defense being unavailable to a defendant who “is illegally gambling and a fight erupts because the victim believes the defendant is cheating[, leading] to the victim’s death.” Id. at 396–97 (citing State v. Leaks, 103 S.E. 549, 551 (S.C. 1920)). 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.” Id. at 394 (majority opinion).

And we agree with Gammons that this instructional error could have served as the basis for the jury’s decision to convict. Because Gammons asserted that he fired the shots only until Gilbert retreated, we cannot be sure that the trial’s outcome would have been the same under a proper instruction and presume this error affected the verdict. To be sure, “[f]iring multiple shots undercuts a claim of self-defense” once a defendant disables the purported aggressor. Id. at 395 n.2 (citation omitted); see also Schlegel v. State, 238 Ind. 374, 383, 150 N.E.2d 563, 567 (1958) (explaining that if a victim falls to the ground after a first shot is fired in self-defense, a second shot is unnecessary). But the account conveyed by Gammons is like that made by a defendant who—after an aggressive and intoxicated driver who almost hit him with his car said “I got something for your ass” and reached for his waistline—grabbed a gun from his van and fired two shots, striking the driver. Hood v. State, 877 N.E.2d 492, 494, 497 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007), trans. denied. After the driver continued staggering and allegedly lunged forward, Hood fired four more shots until the driver collapsed. Id. Following Hood’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter at trial, however, our Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial, holding, among other things, that it didn’t “find the fact that six shots were fired to be dispositive” when Hood asserted that the driver was still coming toward him as he fired. Id. at 496. See also Brand v. State, 766 N.E.2d 772, 776–77 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002) (reversing conviction despite defendant firing four shots purportedly in self-defense), trans. denied.

….

…Unlike a defendant shooting at an incapacitated or defenseless victim, Gammons maintains that he shot only until Gilbert retreated. Based on his account of the events leading up to the confrontation, we cannot say with certainty that the jury would have convicted Gammons without hearing the erroneous instruction.

Conclusion

We do not pass judgment today on whether Gammons acted in self-defense when he shot Gilbert. 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.

Rush, C.J., and David, Slaughter, and Goff, JJ., concur.

 

Read Full Opinion