Skip navigation
CLN bookstore
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Missouri Supreme Court: Defendant Entitled to ‘Castle Doctrine’ Jury Instruction Even Though Assailant Not Unlawfully in Vehicle at Very Moment of Use of Deadly Force

by Harold Hempstead

The Supreme Court of Missouri en bancheld that “substantial evidence existed to support a castle doctrine instruction” and that Andrea S. Straughter was prejudiced by the Circuit Court’s failure to give said jury instruction.

On May 17, 2018, Straughter drove her acquaintance, Nicholas Ward, to the home of his ex-girlfriend, Markysha Randell. Upon their arrival, Randell exited her house with a handgun and cocked it. She then “[p]ointed it in the air and said ‘everybody about to leave with some hot lead in they [sic] ass today.’” Ward exited the vehicle, leaving his own handgun on the passenger seat and told Randell, “if you put your hands on it, that will be the day I set fire at [sic] you.” Randell removed the magazine from her gun and the cartridge from the chamber and told her sister Shereka Jenkins-Finnie to place the gun in the trunk of a nearby parked vehicle. Jenkins-Finnie complied but left the trunk open. Randell and Ward engaged in a heated argument as Straughter remained seated in the driver’s seat of the vehicle.

Randell then approached Straughter and asked her why she drove Ward to her house. After Straughter responded that she did not owe Randell an explanation, Randell punched Straughter in the face through the open car window. This happened as Straughter observed Jenkins-Finnie running toward her armed with a handgun. Straughter quickly grabbed the gun that Ward left on the “passenger’s seat and, without aiming, fired … [it] at least twice.” A bullet hit Randell in the abdomen causing serious but non-fatal injuries. As Straughter drove away, she fired another round “that hit Jenkins-Finnie in the foot.”

Straughter was charged with two counts of first-degree assault and two counts of armed criminal action. She requested that the jury be instructed on the general statutory right of self-defense and that they also be given the self-defense instruction commonly referred to as the castle doctrine. The State objected to the castle doctrine instruction, contending that it was inapplicable, because Randell’s arm was no longer inside the vehicle when Straughter shot Randell.

The Circuit Court granted the general self-defense instruction request but denied her request for an instruction on the castle doctrine. Straughter was found guilty on all counts, sentenced to 10 years in prison, and timely appealed.

The Court began its analysis by observing that a defendant has a right to a self-defense instruction if “substantial evidence” and “reasonable inferences drawn therefrom” support the theory set forth in the requested instruction. State v. Barnett, 577 S.W.3d 124 (Mo. 2019). The substantial evidence threshold is satisfied “if there is evidence putting a matter in issue.” State v. Bruner, 541 S.W.3d 529 (Mo. 2018). In determining whether the Circuit Court erred in denying a requested instruction on self-defense, “the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant.” Id.

The general statutory right of self-defense provides that a person is justified in using non-deadly force “to defend [oneself] or a third person from what he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful force by such other person....” § 563.031.1. The general right of self-defense also permits the use of deadly force when “a person reasonably believes that such deadly force is necessary to protect himself, or herself or her unborn child, or another against death, serious physical injury, or any forcible felony.” § 563.031.2 (1).

The Court noted that Missouri law also recognizes the castle doctrine, which provides that a person is justified in using deadly force even when not facing death, serious physical injury, or a forcible felony “to defend himself or herself or a third person from what he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful force by such other person” and such “force is used against a person who unlawfully enters, remains after unlawfully entering, or attempts to unlawfully enter a dwelling, residence, or a vehicle lawfully occupied by such person.” §§ 563.031.1 and 563.031.2 (2).

Turning to the present case, the Court agreed with Straughter that the Circuit Court erred by denying her request to instruct the jury on the castle doctrine. It explained that the lower court was required to give the instruction if there was substantial evidence that “(1) Straughter reasonably believed physical force was necessary to defend herself from what she reasonably believed to be the imminent use of unlawful force by Randell; and (2) Randell unlawfully entered the vehicle.” When viewed in the light most favorable to providing the castle-doctrine instruction, the Court stated that there was substantial evidence for each element.

Straughter saw Randell waving a handgun and threatening to shoot people, and Randell punched her through the open window. Randell remained positioned at the open window while Straughter was seated in the vehicle, posing a threat of imminent violence, according to the Court. Additionally, Straughter saw Jenkins-Finnie running towards her armed with a handgun. Consequently, the Court concluded that there was substantial evidence that Straughter reasonably believed that force was required to defend herself against the imminent use of unlawful force.

The next issue was whether Randell unlawfully entered the vehicle, according to the Court. It explained that Randell did unlawfully enter the vehicle once her arm breached the threshold of the open window to hit Straughter.

The Court rejected the State’s argument that the castle doctrine doesn’t apply because Randell’s unlawful entry into the vehicle and Straughter shooting her didn’t occur simultaneously. That is, the State argued that at the moment of the shooting Randell was no longer unlawfully located inside the vehicle (because she had retracted her arm after hitting Straughter, but she was still located immediately outside the open window), so the castle doctrine is inapplicable. The Court stated that the events “occurred rapidly” and cited its recent opinion in State v. Whitaker, 636 S.W.3d 569 (Mo. 2022), in which it rejected parsing the parties’ actions “across each indivisible instant of time” because such quick altercations are “both dangerous and dynamic” and occur in an instant. Thus, the Court concluded that there was substantial evidence that Straughter reasonably believed force was required to defend herself “while Randell was unlawfully entering the vehicle.”

Accordingly, the Court ruled that there was substantial evidence to satisfy the elements required for a jury instruction on the castle doctrine and further ruled that the Circuit Court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on the castle doctrine as requested by Straughter.

Finally, the Court addressed the issue of whether Straughter was prejudiced by the denial of the castle doctrine instruction. It explained that the castle doctrine is broad than the general right of self-defense because the former, unlike the latter, doesn’t require the imminent threat of death or serious physical injury in order to respond with deadly force. As a result, the jury could have found that she was entitled to use deadly force under the castle doctrine but not under the general right of self-defense, thereby affecting the outcome of the trial, reasoned the Court. Therefore, the Court concluded that she was prejudiced by the Circuit Court’s error, see State v. Forrest, 183 S.W.3d 218 (Mo. 2006), and held that she “was entitled to a castle doctrine instruction even if a general self-defense instruction was also given.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the Circuit Court’s judgment and remanded the case for a new trial on all counts. See: State v. Straughter, 643 S.W.3d 317 (Mo. 2022). 

As a digital subscriber to Criminal Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

State v. Straughter

State v. Forrest

 

 

Federal Prison Handbook - Side
CLN Subscribe Now Ad
PLN Subscribe Now Ad