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Arkansas Supreme Court Rules Justification Defense Available When Charged With Manslaughter

by David Reutter

The Supreme Court of Arkansas held that the defense of justification is available to a defendant charged with manslaughter if the defendant was not reckless or negligent in forming the belief that force was necessary.

The Court had before it the appeal of Christopher Schnarr. It was the second time his case came before the Court. The first time, Schnarr was charged with first-degree murder, but the jury found him guilty of manslaughter. The Court reversed, holding that Schnarr was denied a public trial.

On remand, he was charged with and convicted of manslaughter. The facts showed that Schnarr was involved in a road-rage incident with Artista Aldridge, who stopped his vehicle in front of Schnarr’s after the two exchanged profanities as they drove down the road. An unarmed Aldridge exited his vehicle, yelled, waived his arms around, and poked Schnarr twice in the face.

Schnarr, who had a concealed carry permit, shot three times, hitting Aldridge twice. A shot to the abdomen proved fatal.

At his retrial, Schnarr requested but was denied a jury instruction under Ark. Code Ann. § 5-2-601 et seq. for Justification – Use of Deadly Force in Defense of a Person. The Supreme Court found error and rejected the State’s position that a justification defense pursuant to § 5-2-614 is unavailable for a manslaughter charge.

The Court said that where a defendant asserts the defense, “it must be determined whether the defendant was reckless or negligent either in forming the belief that physical force was reckless or negligent in employing an excessive degree of force. Stated differently, if Schnarr was reckless or negligent in forming the belief that force was necessary, then, and only then, is the defense unavailable. If, however, Schnarr was not reckless or negligent in forming his belief, the defense is available.”

The Court emphasized that “it is for the jury to determine culpability, not the prosecutor.” Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for a new trial. See: Schnarr v. State, 561 S.W.3d 308 (Ark. 2018). 

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