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Indiana Supreme Court: Must Be Immediate Causal Connection Between Confrontation and Other Crime by Defendant to Negate Self-Defense

Anthony Gammons, Jr. and his 10-year-old son stopped by the house of Gammons’ cousin. Gammons was immediately accosted by Derek Gilbert. Gammons knew that Gilbert liked to get drunk, fight, rob, and shoot at people. He also knew that Gilbert had previously been charged with murder. Even though Gammons was openly carrying a handgun, Gilbert squared up as if to punch Gammons, pulling at his waistband and asking if Gammons was “casket ready.”

Gammons later testified that he shot at Gilbert eight times because he feared for his life and the life of his son. But as soon as Gilbert retreated and ran away, Gammons stopped firing. Gilbert survived, and Gammons was charged with attempted murder.

At trial, Gammons conceded he was carrying the handgun without a license. Gammons requested that the court instruct the jury that he was “justified in using deadly force” if he believed it was “necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to himself.” The court inserted additional language stating “a person may not use force if ... he is committing a crime that is directly and immediately related to the confrontation.” And in closing, the prosecutor emphasized that a person “can’t be doing anything illegal at the time” he claims he was acting in self-defense.

Gammons was found guilty, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that if error occurred in the instruction, it was harmless. Gammons appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The Court observed that when an appellant challenges an instruction as an incorrect statement of law, the Court conducts a de novo review and “reversal is required … if the jury’s decision may have been based upon an erroneous instruction.” Hawkins v. State, 100 N.E.3d 313 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018).

Self-defense is legal justification for an otherwise criminal act. Coleman v. State, 946 N.E.2d 1160 (Ind. 2011). But by statute, a person cannot use force defending himself if he, inter alia, “is committing ... a crime.” Ind. Code § 35-41-3-2. But the Indiana Supreme Court has held the statute isn’t to be strictly applied because the “legislature is presumed to have intended the language in the statute to be applied logically and not to bring about an unjust or absurd result.” Mayes. “[T]here must be an immediate causal connection between the crime and the confrontation.” Id. A literal interpretation of the statute would foreclose a claim of self-defense where the defendant’s crime was tenuously connected to the confrontation, the Court explained. For example, self-defense would be barred where the defendant was illegally gambling and a fight erupted because the victim accused the defendant of cheating, leading to the victim’s death. State v. Leaks, 103 S.E. 549 (S.C. 1920).

In the instant case, the trial court’s instruction allowed the jury to reject Gammons’ claimed self-defense and convict him if his crime of carrying an unlicensed handgun was “directly and immediately related” to the confrontation. The instruction failed to explain the level of causation demanded by Mayes, and the Court could not “conclusively determine that the verdict would have been the same absent this instructional error.”

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Gammons v. State



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