by Dale Chappell
The Supreme Court of Mississippi held on January 9, 2020, that a pre-arming jury instruction was wrongfully given in a shooting death case and further held that no court in the state may ever again issue a pre-arming instruction to a jury preventing a self-defense with a firearm defense.
When Dante Taylor was charged with first-degree murder after he shot and killed his uncle, the State requested that the trial court issue to the jury a “pre-arming” instruction that prevented Taylor from arguing that he shot his uncle in self-defense. The trial court granted the request and gave the instruction to the jury.
Taylor was convicted and was sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, he argued that the trial court erred by giving the pre-arming instruction, but the court of appeals affirmed his conviction and sentence. However, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and held that the trial court should not have given the instruction in this case.
The shooting occurred in 2014, after Taylor’s sister said their uncle jumped on her and choked her during an argument. Taylor, ignoring his family’s advice to leave his uncle alone, parked his car near a house where his uncle was known to be present. When his uncle saw Taylor, they approached each other, and Taylor shot his uncle.
The fact of who was the aggressor was contested at trial. Some witnesses testified that Taylor walked up to his uncle and shot him, but Taylor testified his uncle charged at him. Taylor stated that he meant to shoot his uncle in the leg to stop him but missed and hit his stomach.
The issue at trial was whether Taylor packed a gun before the encounter with the intention of using it to attack his uncle, or whether it was for self-defense, as he claimed. If he had “pre-armed” himself not out of self-defense but to provoke and kill his uncle, the pre-arming instruction would have been proper.
To meet the need for a pre-arming instruction, a defendant must (1) arm himself in advance of (2) provoking “difficulty” with another person (3) with the intent to overcome that person. Hall v. State, 420 So.2d 1381 (Miss. 1982).
The Court reiterated that the pre-arming instruction “is to inform the fact-finder [jury] that one cannot arm himself in advance when he is not in any physical danger, go forth and provoke a confrontation or difficulty with another, shoot the other, and then attempt to hide behind a smoke screen of self-defense.”
Pre-arming instructions, the Court said, have been “strongly criticized in a long line” of cases, noting that the instruction is given “only in those extremely rare incidents where the instruction was supported by the evidence.” The instruction is proper in only “the few, very, very rare cases” where all the elements for the instruction are met.
This was not one of those “very, very rare cases,” the Court said, and held that the trial court erred in giving the instruction.
The Court also took the opportunity to abolish the pre-arming instruction altogether. It noted in the nearly 120 years the instruction has been around, it has “rarely” been upheld as valid, calling it a “disfavored estoppel instruction.” Estoppel because it “stops” a defendant from raising a self-defense argument in court.
Juries can easily sniff out “laughable” self-defense arguments by a defendant, the Court noted, and prosecutors are aptly able to point out faulty self-defense arguments to the jury. “It is better to be judged by twelve than carried by six,” the Court said.
The Court also cited gun ownership as another reason to toss the questionable pre-arming instruction. “Our laws allow our citizens to stand their ground and defend against attacks to themselves and others.” Under the current state of the pre-arming jury instruction, “even lawfully armed persons might find themselves subjected to an instruction estopping their otherwise valid self-defense plea when placed in the unfortunate situation of defending themselves with a weapon,” the Court said.
Instead, the Court held that a trial court should give the jury a self-defense instruction “and let the chips fall where they may.”
Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the judgments of the lower courts and remanded Taylor’s case for a new trial. See: Taylor v. State, 2020 Miss. LEXIS 2 (2020).
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Related legal case
Taylor v. State
|Cite||2019 Del. LEXIS 332 (2019)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|