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Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Holds Sua Sponte Jury Instruction on Self-Defense Also Applies to Lesser-Included Charges

by Dale Chappell

A sua sponte jury instruction on self-defense for a murder charge applied equally to the lesser-included charge, and a judge’s failure to inform the jury that it could acquit even the lesser charge was “egregious” error requiring reversal, the of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”) held.

The trial court instructed the jury that it could acquit Adrian Mendez of murder if it found that he used deadly force to protect himself in self-defense. Mendez had argued that he stabbed to death a man who was arguing with him when he thought he was reaching for a gun. The court’s instruction to the jury about the self-defense theory was not at Mendez’s request but on the court’s own volition. The jury acquitted Mendez of murder, but it convicted him of the lesser-included charge of aggravated assault. Sentenced to seven years in prison, Mendez appealed, and the First Court of Appeals held that the trial court was required to instruct the jury that the self-defense theory also applied to the lesser-included charge, not just to the murder charge. The State petitioned the CCA, which agreed to hear the State’s appeal.

Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 36.14 requires that a trial judge’s jury instructions to include “the law applicable to the case.” This includes common instructions such as the presumption of innocence, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and unanimity of the verdict. These are required jury instructions to be made sua sponte by the court without prompting by the defendant.

But a trial court is not required to instruct a jury on every defense-benefiting instruction as the “law applicable to the case,” such as mistake of fact or self-defense. However, if the court of its own volition instructs the jury on a defensive issue, “that issue becomes ‘law applicable to the case,’ whether the defendant requested it or objected to its absence or not.”

Typically, an erroneous jury instruction that is not preserved in the trial court is not reviewable on appeal, except for “egregious” error. However, when the court itself provides the instruction, the issue can still be reviewed on appeal, regardless of whether the defendant objected to it in the trial court.

In this case, the trial judge signaled to the jury that the self-defense instruction was “applicable to the case” under Article 36.14; thus, the judge had a duty to correctly deliver the instruction to the jury, which included an instruction that the self-defense theory also applied to the lesser-included charge. “This is so because, if an issue is ‘law applicable to the case,’” the Court said, the “jury must be instructed under what circumstances they should convict, or under what circumstances they should acquit.”

The CCA noted that when self-defense is “law applicable to the case” it must also be applied to any lesser-included offenses. It announced: “If a trial court charges the jury generally upon the law of self-defense, it must apply that general charge to every lesser-included offense for which that justification would serve to ‘acquit’ the defendant. To fail to do so is to inadequately instruct the jury as to the ‘law applicable to the case.’”

In the present case, the trial judge failed to instruct the jury that the self-defense theory also applied to the lesser-included charge of aggravated assault. Accordingly, the CCA affirmed the First Court of Appeals’ judgment vacating Mendez’s aggravated assault conviction. See: Mendez v. State, 545 S.W.3d 548 (Tex. Ct. Crim. App. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Mendez v. State



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