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Kansas Supreme Court Reverses Conviction Where Trial Court Refused to Give Self-Defense Instruction

Keyes was tried for the murder of Jimmy Martin. State’s witness Carlo Malone testified that Keyes ordered him to stand outside the backdoor of Martin’s mobile home while Keyes entered the trailer armed with a pistol. He testified that he poked his head inside the door, but it was too dark to see anything. He heard an exchange of words between Keyes and Martin, culminating with Martin telling Keyes “do what you got to do.” Martin testified that he heard a gunshot and that he later helped Keyes bury Martin’s body.

Keyes testified that he neither ordered Malone to stand outside the backdoor nor was Malone even present. Keyes testified that Tina Martin – the owner of the property – had instructed him (Keyes) to evict Martin. Because Keyes knew that Martin was known to be armed with a knife, Keyes armed himself with the pistol. He confronted Martin inside the mobile home and told him he had to move. Martin threatened to kill Keyes, grabbed a knife, and began slashing it toward Keyes. Keyes shot Martin twice in the chest and twice in the head, killing him.

The coroner confirmed that Martin had been shot twice in the head and twice in the chest. Additionally, other witnesses testified that Martin was dangerous and had threatened to kill them with a knife.

At the close of the evidence, Keyes requested jury instructions on self-defense and involuntary manslaughter. Over objections from the defense, the district court denied the request. The jury convicted Keyes of first-degree premeditated murder, and he appealed, arguing, inter alia, that the district court erred when it refused his requested jury instructions.

The Kansas Supreme Court observed that jury instruction issues are analyzed utilizing a three-step process: (1) whether there is a lack of appellate jurisdiction, e.g. the appellant failed to preserve the issue for appeal; (2) consider the merits of the issue to determine if there was error; and (3) assess whether the error was harmless. State v. McLinn, 409 P.3d 1 (Kan. 2018). The first step was satisfied when Keyes objected to the district court’s refusal to give the instructions.

To determine if there was error, the court had to consider whether the instructions were legally and factually appropriate. McLinn. In so doing, the court examines the entire record in the light most favorable to Keyes. State v. Barlett, 418 P.3d 1253 (Kan. 2018).

The Court determined a self-defense instruction was legally appropriate because criminal defendants are generally entitled to an instruction on the law applicable to their theory of defense. Kansas law justifies the use of deadly force if a person reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. State v. Qualls, 439 P.3d 301 (Kan. 2019). The Court also determined the self-defense instruction was factually appropriate because Keyes’ testimony was evidence that he reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. Id.

The State argued that Keyes wasn’t entitled to the instruction because he had entered the mobile home armed, thereby provoking Martin and negating the claim of self-defense pursuant to K.S.A. § 21-5226. The State also argued that Malone’s testimony omitted any mention of Martin confronting Keyes with a knife.

The Court rejected the State’s arguments because (1) Keyes entered the mobile home on orders of the owner to evict Martin; (2) Malone testified it was dark, he didn’t see anything, and he heard only one shot, but the coroner testified Martin was shot four times; (3) evidence corroborated Keyes’ belief that Martin was dangerous, explaining he armed himself only for self-defense; and (4) the evidence was to be viewed in the light most favorable to Keyes.

The Court concluded it was error to refuse the requested jury instructions. Because the question of self-defense could only be resolved by a jury making a credibility determination between Keyes and Malone, the Court concluded there was a reasonable probability the error affected the outcome of the trial and was, therefore, reversible error. State v. Barrett, 442 P.3d 492 (Kan. 2019).

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded with directions. See: State v. Keyes, 472 P.3d 78 (Kan. 2020). 

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