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Michigan Supreme Court: Defendant Entitled to Self-defense Jury Instruction

by David M. Reutter

The Supreme Court of Michigan held a trial court erred in denying a defendant’s request for a self-defense instruction on the basis that a defendant who claims another person committed the homicide is not entitled to a self-defense instruction. It also held it was improper to exclude testimonial evidence that tended to support the self-defense theory where the trial court improperly made a factual finding that defendant and another person were the initial aggressors and could have fled.

The Court’s ruling came in an appeal brought by Nadeem Yousaf Rajput. Rajput and a man known only as Haus were riding in Rajput’s car on May 7, 2016, when a red Malibu with two occupants approached and fired shots at Rajput and Haus. After returning to Rajput’s home, Rajput and Haus went looking for the Malibu.

When they found the car, its sole occupant was Lakeisha Henry. They gave chase, trapped the vehicle, and approached Henry. An argument ensued, and multiple shots were fired, resulting in Henry’s death. At trial, Rajput argued Haus shot Henry when she reached for the gun in her car. The trial court denied a self-defense instruction. It also refused to admit the testimony of Pierre Clay, who was prepared to testify that his brother, Dewayne Clay, who was also Henry’s boyfriend, was on the phone when the incident was occurring and that Clay told Henry to “shoot, shoot.”

The jury convicted Rajput of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 46 to 95 years in prison. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and the matter was taken to the Michigan Supreme Court.

That court noted that its precedent holds that once a defendant presents some evidence that a jury could conclude the elements to establish a prima facie case of self-defense exists, “the prosecution bears the burden of disproving the affirmative defense of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.” People v. Dupree, 788 NW2d 399 (Mich. 2010).

The appellate court was correct in concluding that the trial court erred in holding a self-defense instruction was improper because Rajput claimed Haus shot the victim. An “aider and abettor is relieved of liability if the principal acted in self-defense.” People v. Pearce, 120 NW2d 838 (Mich. 1963). Nonetheless, the appellate court “engaged in improper fact-finding when it held that defendant and Haus were the initial aggressors and could have fled instead of responding with deadly force when the victim allegedly reached for a weapon.” Rajput testified that they only approached Henry to find out who was shooting at them and why. Additionally, he did not have to flee when the victim reached for the weapon found by police in the car. Whether Rajput and Haus were the initial aggressors was a question for the jury.

Next, the finding that Carr’s testimony was irrelevant was error. His testimony was probative evidence on the material issue of self-defense, and it made it more likely that Henry reached for the gun as instructed by Clay. As such, the appellate court’s rulings were in error.

Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to the appellate court to determine if harmless error applied to the self-defense instruction and Carr’s testimony. If the conviction is affirmed after making that determination, the appellate court must reconsider the improper upward departure sentence, which the trial court remarked was based on Rajput appearing to be guilty of first degree murder, not second, and the jury might have compromised. See: People v. Rajput, 2020 Mich. LEXIS 127 (2020) 

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Related legal case

People v. Rajput

 

 

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