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Missouri Supreme Court Clarifies Defendant Is Entitled to Self-Defense Instruction When Substantial Evidence Supports Instruction Regardless of Whether Defendant Presented Evidence Contrary to Self-Defense

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Missouri clarified that a defendant is entitled to a self-defense jury instruction whenever there is substantial evidence to support the submission of the instruction, and the fact that a defendant presents evidence contrary to the theory of self-defense is not an exception.

Andrew Barnett and Victim were both at the Little Bar (“the bar”). All night long, Victim urged Barnett to go outside and fight him. Victim eventually approached Barnett in a threatening manner in the bar, and the two men fought. The bartenders ordered the men to leave. Before Barnett left, his friend returned some knives to Barnett. Barnett exited the bar and stopped to urinate near a dumpster. Victim approached Barnett and shouted, “Now you’re going to die [expletive].”

Barnett saw a shiny metal object in Victim’s hand coming toward Barnett’s face. Barnett later testified he knocked the Victim’s hand away, shoved Victim to the ground, and left. A witness claimed he saw Victim “drop like a bag of rocks.” Victim was lying on the ground, bleeding from apparent stab wounds. A few hours after the incident, police officers asked Barnett if he stabbed Victim in self-defense, but Barnett adamantly denied stabbing Victim at all. At trial, Barnett proffered a self-defense instruction.

The State objected, arguing Barnett was not entitled to the instruction because he had denied the stabbing. The circuit court sustained the State’s objection. A jury found Barnett guilty of first-degree assault and armed criminal action. Barnett appealed, arguing the circuit court erred by refusing to submit a self-defense instruction.

The Missouri Supreme Court observed, “In determining whether a defendant is entitled to an instruction, this Court has long held if there is substantial evidence to support the theory propounded in the requested instruction, the court is required to submit that instruction to the jury.” State v. Bidstrup, 140 S.W. 904 (Mo. 1911). In making this determination, a court must view “the evidence in a light most favorable to the defendant[] in order to determine whether the evidence was sufficient to support and authorize instructions on the mentioned matters.” State v. Cole, 377 S.W.2d 306 (Mo. 1964).

The rule that a court is required to submit an instruction when there is substantial evidence to support it does not change when the defendant’s testimony contradicts the requested instruction. Bidstrup. Otherwise, the court would be tasked with determining which version of the defendant’s statements to believe, and that would usurp the jury’s fact-finding role. State v. Jackson, 433 S.W.3d 390 (Mo. 2014).

The court is to determine if the evidence is sufficient to support the instruction, regardless of which party introduced the evidence. Bidstrup. Substantial evidence is “any theory of innocence ... however improbable that theory may seem, so long as the most favorable construction of the evidence supports it.” State v. Minard, 245 S.W.2d 890 (Mo. 1952). If the evidence tends to establish the defendant’s theory, or supports differing conclusions, the defendant is entitled to an instruction on it. State v. Westfall, 75 S.W.3d 278 (Mo. 2002). Substantial evidence to support a self-defense instruction must show the elements of self-defense as defined by statute: A person may use physical force upon another if the person (1) was not the initial aggressor and (2) reasonably believes such force to be necessary to defend himself from what he believes to be the use of unlawful force by such other person. RSMo § 563.031.1. A person can only use deadly force when he reasonably believes such deadly force is necessary to protect himself against death, serious physical injury, or any forcible felony. § 563.031.2(1).

The Court determined Barnett was not the initial aggressor, and he reasonably believed the use of deadly force was necessary to protect himself from death, serious physical injury, or a forcible felony. Victim repeatedly challenged Barnett to step outside and fight. Victim approached Barnett in a threatening manner inside the bar and the men fought. While Barnett was outside urinating, Victim approached from behind shouting “now you’re going to die,” and Victim swung something metal and shiny toward Barnett’s face. Even though there was evidence negating self-defense, the trial court is to view only the evidence supporting the instruction or “in the light most favorable” to giving the instruction.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the circuit court and remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with the Court’s opinion. See: State v. Barnett, 577 S.W.3d 124 (Mo. 2019).

Writer’s note: In clarifying the rule that a defendant is entitled to an instruction whenever substantial evidence supports it, the Court stated that the dicta stating the contrary in State v. Wright, 175 S.W.2d 866 (1943) is incorrect and further stated any holding to the contrary should not be followed. The Court expressly overruled State v. Baker, 277 S.W.2d 627 (Mo. 1995), and its progeny. 

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State v. Barnett



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