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Washington Supreme Court Reaffirms Workman’s Lesser Included Offense Test and Clarifies Confusion in its Application

Tanner Lee Coryell and his girlfriend, Autumn Hart’Lnenicka, fought inside their apartment. Officer Shon Malone responded to a 911 call from Hart’Lnenicka. Ultimately, Coryell was arrested and tried on two counts: second degree assault by strangulation (Count 1) and fourth degree assault (Count 2).

Coryell’s relevant testimony at trial was that there was only one altercation between himself and Hart’Lnenicka in their living room. He said that Hart’Lnenicka threatened to smash his electronic devices after she became convinced he had cheated on her with a former girlfriend. Coryell testified that Hart’Lnenicka attacked him, and he at no time placed his hands on her neck.

Hart’Lnenicka testified that she and Coryell first fought in the living room. They traded blows, and he pushed her down. At one point he had his hands on her neck, but she could still breathe and talk. She did not feel like she was going to pass out. Coryell ended up shoving her out of the apartment. After Hart’Lnenicka re-entered the apartment, they fought again in the laundry room. Coryell once again put his hands around her neck. This time she could not breathe, and she said Coryell threatened that he was “not afraid to kill” her.

Officer Malone testified that, at the crime scene, Coryell confirmed he and Hart’Lnenicka had been fighting because she believed he cheated on her. Coryell twice denied to Malone that he had put his hands around Hart’Lnenicka’s neck. Malone testified that he interviewed Coryell another time at the jail after he had been arrested, and Coryell consistently denied ever placing his hands around her neck. Malone also testified that he had observed Hart’Lnenicka’s neck at the crime scene, and he did not see any signs of potential hemorrhaging (i.e. broken blood vessels around the eyes, mouth, or other areas of the skin), which are often observed when someone is choked with force. However, Malone did observe abrasions and welts on Hart’Lnenicka’s neck that could have been caused by fingers gripping her neck.

At the close of the evidence, Coryell requested a lesser included offense instruction on fourth degree assault for Count 1. The trial court, relying on Workman and State v. Porter, 82 P.3d 234 (Wash. 2004), determined the standard for a lesser included offense instruction requires that “[t]he evidence must raise an inference that only the lesser included offense was committed to the exclusion of the charged offense.” The trial court reasoned that evidence allowed for a finding that either Hart’Lnenicka was strangled or she was not – Coryell presented no testimony that he put his hands on her neck but did not strangle her. The court denied the requested instruction, and the jury convicted Coryell on both counts. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the instruction, and the Washington Supreme Court granted Coryell’s petition for review.

The Supreme Court observed that the issue in this case was the manner in which the trial court understood Porter’s use of the language “to the exclusion of the charged offense” to interpret and apply Workman’s framework. In Workman, the court ruled a lesser included offense instruction may be given only if (1) each of the elements of the lesser offense is a necessary element of the offense charged (the legal prong), and (2) “the evidence in the case must support an inference that the lesser crime was committed” (the factual prong). But the trial court muddied the waters when it applied Workman to State v. Fernandez-Medina, 6 P.3d 1150 (Wash. 2000), concluding that the factual prong required evidence “that only the lesser/inferior offense was committed to the exclusion of the [greater] charged offense.”

To clear up the confusion, the Washington Supreme Court explained the difference between a “lesser included offense” and a “lesser/inferior offense.” All of the elements defining a “lesser included offense” must be contained in the greater offense charged in the indictment or information, RCW 10.61.006. Said another way, the charged greater offense must contain all the elements of the lesser included offense plus additional element(s). A jury may convict on the lesser included offense if it finds the State, in its attempt to prove the greater offense, has proved only all the elements in the lesser included offense. Id.

On the other hand, a “lesser/inferior offense” may have an element not found in the greater offense and vice-versa. RCW 10.61.003. For example, second degree assault (by torture) is a lesser/inferior degree offense for first degree assault (by inflicting great bodily injury), even though the lesser degree assault has an element (torture) not part of the greater degree of assault – meaning the lesser degree assault does not qualify as a lesser included offense of the greater degree assault. Consequently, a lesser/inferior degree instruction may be given only when evidence is presented to satisfy the elements of that offense to “the exclusion” of the greater offense, the Court explained.

“To the exclusion” does not mean there cannot be any evidence of the greater offense, noted the Court. In the example above, the lesser degree instruction would be required if there were evidence of assault with great bodily harm and evidence of assault by torture. The jury could disregard the former evidence and return a verdict based solely on the latter evidence, i.e., disregard the great bodily harm evidence as not believable but find the torture evidence was credible. State v. Kirby, 147 P.2d 947 (Wash. 1944). Additionally, when “there exists reasonable doubt as to which of two or more degrees [a defendant] is guilty, [the defendant] shall be convicted of only the lowest degree.” RCW 9A.04.100(2).

To convict Coryell of Count 1, the State had to prove he assaulted Hart’Lnenicka by strangulation. RCW 9A.36.021(1)(g). “Strangulation” means “to compress a person’s neck [which would obstruct a] person’s blood flow or ability to breathe, or doing so with the intent to obstruct the person’s blood flow or ability to breathe.” RCW 9A.04.110(25). But “assault in the fourth degree” requires only proof that Coryell “intentionally assaulted another.” RCW 9A.35.041.

There was evidence to support a finding that Coryell assaulted Hart’Lnenicka in the living room and in the laundry room but that he didn’t strangle her either time. Or the jury could have believed Coryell assaulted her twice in the living room – once by striking her and once by putting his hands on her neck but not strangling her. Malone’s testimony would support this finding in that he observed red welts on her neck, but he did not observe petechial hemorrhaging. Either of these possible findings supported giving the lesser-degree-of-offense instruction. Therefore, the Court ruled that “the trial court erred in requiring evidence that would exclude the commission of the charged crime” and in refusing the requested instruction. The Washington Supreme Court reaffirmed that Workman provides the proper factual test for determining when a lesser/inferior degree instruction is to be given to a jury, and in this instance, the evidence casts doubt on whether Coryell strangled the victim, entitling him to a lesser degree assault instruction.

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Related legal case

State v. Coryell

 

 

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