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Texas Court of Criminal Appeals: Trial Court Deprived Defendant of Opportunity to Present Complete Defense

by Douglas Ankney 

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas held that the trial court erred when it prohibited William Rogers from presenting evidence to support his claim of self-defense and also when it refused to instruct the jury on self-defense.

Rogers was tried by jury on charges of Burglary of a Habitation with the underlying commission of Aggravated Assault and Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon. Prior to jury selection, the State filed a motion in limine seeking to prevent Rogers from presenting over 70,000 text messages he exchanged with Sandra Watson while the two were engaged in a lengthy affair from July 2011 until the date of the offense on February 14, 2013. The motion also sought to prevent Rogers from making any mention of self-defense during voir dire, opening statements, cross-examination, and even his own testimony if he were to testify in his own defense at trial. It also sought to bar any evidence that Watson’s husband (“Complainant”) had become aware of the affair shortly before the date of the offense. The trial court granted the motion without any testimony to support it.

Rogers testified at his trial that he had been in a lengthy affair with Sandra Watson, and during this relationship, Watson had given him a key to her family home and had provided the passcode to the alarm system. On the date of the alleged offenses, Rogers entered her family home using the key and passcode to feed her cats, pursuant to her request.

After feeding them, Rogers observed Complainant approaching the house. Rogers could not open the back door, so he entered a room Watson had described to him on a previous occasion as her “sanctuary room.” Unable to escape through a window, Rogers hid in the closet of the sanctuary room where Complainant kept many firearms in a safe (one firearm was on top of the safe).

Complainant entered the house and eventually appeared at the closet door in a crouched-knee “linebacker stance.” Complainant held a knife in his hand, moving it up and down, and shouted “YOU” in a booming voice as he approached Rogers. Rogers stepped further back into the closet, and as Complainant stood face-to-face with him, Rogers grabbed the pistol from the safe. The two men struggled over the gun, which discharged below the Complainant’s waist.

During Rogers’ direct testimony, he was asked about his state of mind at that moment. Although the trial court had stated pretrial that “if it gets to where we have an instruction on self-defense, I will give you adequate time to explain that to the panel,” the judge instead ordered the examination of Rogers to cease, excused the jury, and admonished both Rogers and his counsel by stating: “you may not venture off into anything that alludes to or invades the province of self-defense.”

Rogers was ultimately convicted of Burglary of a Habitation with the underlying Aggravated Assault and Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon and sentenced to 40 years on the former with a concurrent term of 20 years on the latter. On appeal, Rogers argued that the trial court prevented him from presenting a complete defense and that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct on any defensive issues. The Court of Appeals (“COA”) – without deciding whether error occurred – concluded that any failure to instruct on defensive issues was harmless. The Court granted review, ruled that if error existed it was harmful, and remanded to the COA to decide whether the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on any defensive issues. The COA then concluded there was no error because Rogers had failed to provide any evidence that would entitle him to a jury instruction on self-defense or necessity. The Court granted review a second time.

The Court observed “[t]he Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States constitution guarantee the accused in a criminal prosecution the right to ‘a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.’” Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006). It then recited the main principles of the governing rules of law on the issue. “Texas law provides that a judge must provide the jury with ‘a written charge distinctly setting forth the law applicable to the case....’” Walters v. State, 247 S.W.3d 204 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). “[T]his law requires the trial judge to instruct the jury on statutory defenses, affirmative defenses, and justifications whenever they are raised by the evidence.” Id. “A defendant is entitled to an instruction on every defensive issue raised by the evidence, regardless of whether the evidence is strong, feeble, unimpeached, or contradicted, and even when the trial court thinks that the testimony is not worthy of belief.” Id. “The defendant’s testimony alone may be sufficient to raise a defensive theory requiring a charge.” Warren v. State, 565 S.W.2d 931 (Tex. Crim. App. 1978). “Even a minimum quantity of evidence is sufficient to raise a defense as long as the evidence would support a rational jury finding as to the defense.” Shaw v. State, 243 S.W.3d 647 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). A defensive instruction is to be given when “that defense is a rational alternative to the defendant’s criminal liability.” Id.

Rogers’ testimony alone was enough to warrant an instruction on self-defense, according to the Court. To convict Rogers, the State had to prove that (1) Rogers entered the home of Complainant without consent, and (2) Rogers completed the commission of Aggravated Assault on Complainant. Rogers’ testimony, if believed, negated the first element and defeated the burglary charge. Consequently, the Court explained: “if [Rogers] presented any evidence that tended to defend against the second element of burglary via completed commission of Aggravated Assault, his ‘defense [would be] a rational alternative to [his] criminal liability.’ This is because, if believed, it would have independently defeated the offense charged in addition to the lesser-included offense of Aggravated Assault.”

In Texas, “a person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.” Tex. Penal Code § 9.31. “A person is justified in using deadly force against another: (1) if the actor would be justified in using force against the other under section 9.31; and (2) when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the deadly force is immediately necessary: (A) to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful deadly force; or (B) to prevent the other’s imminent commission of aggravated kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated robbery.” § 9.32. Of importance for the present case, “[a] person who has a right to be present at the location where deadly force is used, who has not provoked the person against whom deadly force is used, and who is not engaged in criminal activity at the time the deadly force is used is not required to retreat before using deadly force as described by this section.” § 9.32(c).

According to Rogers’ testimony, he had a right to be in Watson’s house because he had the key and the passcode provided to him by Sandra; she had asked him to stop by and feed her cats; and he had done so numerous times in the past and knew the cats’ names and where their food and food bowls were located. In fact, the Court stated that the evidence raises questions about whether Complainant’s own actions were justified under § 9.31. Rogers used potentially deadly force while defending himself against Complainant’s unprovoked actions of approaching Rogers aggressively with a raised knife. As the Court pointed out, Rogers presented evidence that he had valid consent provided by Watson to be in the home, despite the fact Complainant did not consent to Rogers accessing the family home. Moreover, even assuming Rogers were a trespasser for the sake of argument, Texas law “does not blanket authorize the use of deadly force against trespassers – especially in the middle of the afternoon,” the Court stated. See § 9.42.

Applying the governing law to the record, the Court concluded that Rogers was entitled to the defensive charges requested under the standards provided in § 9.32(a)(2)(B) and § 9.32(c). It explained that Rogers’ testimony entitled him to a self-defense jury instruction and that it for the jury to decide whether he had permission to be in the home and whether he used deadly force to protect himself to prevent his imminent murder, not the prosecution or trial judge. Thus, the Court held that both the trial court and the COA erred in this case.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the COA and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Rogers v. State, 2022 Tex. Crim. App. LEXIS 742 (2022).

 

 

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