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Arizona Supreme Court Announces Defendants May Claim Both Self-Defense and Misidentification

by Richard Resch

The Supreme Court of Arizona announced that a defendant is entitled to a self-defense jury instruction while simultaneously claiming a misidentification defense (he or she did not, in fact, commit the offense).

In October 2013, Antajuan Carson fought with multiple people at a house party. At one point, he was jumped by several people, including J.M., S.B, and B.C., who hit and kicked Carson while on the ground. One witness claimed that Carson had a gun, and people began running from the scene. Both J.M. and S.B. were fatally shot. The murder weapon was never recovered. A bloody knife was found near S.B.’s body, and a second bloody knife was recovered from the inside of his belt. Neither knife was tested for fingerprints or DNA. B.C. was shot, but he survived.

Carson was subsequently arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault. He did not testify at trial. His primary defense was that he was not the shooter. However, he requested a self-defense instruction to the jury, which the trial court denied. The court reasoned that it could not give a self-defense instruction because Carson denied being the shooter. The jury found him guilty on all counts, and he appealed.

The court of appeals reversed the murder convictions because the trial court erroneously denied Carson’s self-defense request. It affirmed his aggravated assault convictions with respect to B.C. The Arizona Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to decide the issue of “whether a defendant is entitled to a self-defense instruction while also asserting a misidentification defense,” which the Court characterized as a “recurring issue of statewide importance.”

The Court noted that for decades courts within the state have rejected the notion that a defendant can simultaneously claim that he or she did not physically injure the victim and assert self-defense. However, in this current decision, the Arizona Supreme Court expressly disavowed that line of cases.

The Court reasoned that continued adherence to the old rule “would contradict the legislature’s intent about what constitutes criminal conduct.” In 2006, the legislature amended state statutes by providing that actions in self-defense transform conduct that would otherwise be criminal into legal conduct. A.R.S. § 13-205(A). Once a defendant introduces the slightest evidence that meets the reasonable person standard under the self-defense or deadly force provisions in §§ 13-205(A) -404(A), “the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act with justification.” § 13-205(A).

According to the Supreme Court, the introduction of self-defense evidence triggers an additional element of the criminal offense that the State must prove in order to convict, viz., the absence of self-defense. Preventing a defendant who claims misidentification from simultaneously asserting self-defense would impermissibly relieve the State of its burden of proving an element of the crime—lack of self-defense, explained the Court. To conclude otherwise would effectively require the defendant to relinquish his or her right to hold the State to its burden of proof on all elements of the offense.

Thus, the Supreme Court announced that “if the slightest evidence supports a finding of self-defense, the prosecution must prove its absence, even if the defendant asserts a misidentification defense.” Furthermore, the Court instructed that in a jury trial, the trial court is required to give a self-defense instruction if requested by the defendant and supported by some evidence.

The Court then turned its attention to the facts in the present case. The State argued that Carson was not entitled to a self-defense instruction, by citing numerous facts that it claimed disproved self-defense. However, the Court rejected the State’s position and explained that it “misapprehends the amount of evidence needed to support a self-defense instruction….”

The standard is the introduction of the “slightest evidence” that Carson acted in self-defense. As the Court observed, the threshold is low in meeting that standard. Carson need only show some evidence that he acted in response to a “hostile demonstration.” Additionally, to meet the standard, he was not required to show that a particular individual actually assaulted or threatened him; rather, he was only required to identify some evidence that a reasonable person in his place would have believed that the individual would use or attempt to use physical force against him.

The Court determined there was ample evidence that Carson acted in response to a hostile demonstration with respect to J.M., S.B, and B.C. Among other factors, his attackers were not deterred from assaulting him even after he brandished a gun, and he was pummeled while on the ground. Thus, the Court concluded at least the “slightest evidence” existed that Carson shot all three victims in self-defense.

Accordingly, the Arizona Supreme Court vacated the court of appeals’ opinion, reversed Carson’s convictions, and remanded the case for a new trial. See: State v. Carson, 410 P.3d 1230 (Ariz. 2018). 

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