Murder, Manslaughter, or Self-Defense?

True story. One homeless man killed another in a street fight, and they charged him with first-degree murder. He was convicted at trial, but last week, the California Court of Appeal reversed that conviction and sent the case back.

Why?

The defendant had pleaded self-defense, but the trial court didn’t let him present expert testimony that homeless people suffer a lot more violence than the rest of us, and as a result, they develop a hypersensitivity to perceived threats.

On appeal, the court ruled that this evidence could’ve made a difference because it would’ve helped the jury evaluate self-defense from his perspective, as the law requires. If a jury found that he actually and reasonably believed in the need for lethal force to defend himself, he wouldn’t be guilty of any crime. If, instead, it found that he actually but unreasonably believed in the need for lethal force, then he’d be guilty of manslaughter but not murder.

As it happened, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.

But is that what happened? Here’s the trial record below, so you can decide for yourself.

The dead man’s own friend testified that he watched him inject a “fat” dose of meth that night before storming out the tent they shared. The dose was an 80cc syringe, which an expert described as large enough to kill someone who wasn’t an addict. The friend testified that the man became “agitated,” “aggressive,” and “explosive” before he left.

Within the hour, he was dead.

The defendant didn’t testify at trial, but he’d already confessed to the killing. In post-arrest interviews, he said he knew the man because they both camped in the same area, and he was afraid of him. He’d been stabbed just a few weeks before (which his medical records proved at trial), and he thought the man was one of his attackers.

According to the defendant, that night, the man approached him aggressively and asked for a cigarette. He seemed like he was on something, and the defendant ignored him. The man got angry and asked if he spoke English, and he said he did. The man asked again if he had a cigarette, and he said he did not.

The man then came at him like he wanted to fight. He reached for something in his pocket or waistband, and the defendant thought he was grabbing a knife. So he grabbed his backpack and pulled out a kitchen knife that he had bought after his stabbing. He told the man to get away or he was “gonna send [him] straight to hell.”

They “just started going at it.” Their struggle veered down to the end of the street, where the defendant stabbed the man. When he fell, the defendant “got on top of him [and] made sure that he didn’t get up.” He explained it this way: “I wasn’t gonna wait … to get stabbed. Last time it happened is because I waited … and I wasn’t gonna do that a second time.” He continued to stab the man because he “had to make sure he didn’t … move.”

When asked if he was trying to kill the man, the defendant answered, “Essentially, yes.  I wasn’t trying to tickle him…. Obviously. I’m not gonna lie, yes.”

Afterward, he walked back to his backpack, put the knife in it, and just sat there, waiting for the police. A passerby stumbled onto the scene, saw him, and called 911. The police arrived, found him sitting there, and arrested him. When they asked him what happened, he said, “I got them before they got me.” When asked if he was okay, he replied, “No, he was trying to kill me.” Asked where the knife was, he said it was in the backpack.

A third homeless man had no dog in the fight but overheard some of it. He testified that he was settling in to sleep when he heard two voices arguing. One sounded angry and guttural, like a growl. The other yelled, “Stop, stop,” and moments later, in distress, “Help, help.” He said he stayed put because he didn’t want to get involved. He also testified that he chose his own sleeping place—a stairwell behind the public library—for safety reasons because it was below eye level, and he was less likely to be seen.

Police found the dead body 100 feet away. The primary cause of death was multiple sharp-force injuries to the torso, neck, head, and extremities along with acute methamphetamine intoxication. The blood and urine tested positive for meth, opioids, and other drugs. The defendant’s blood tested negative for all drugs.

On this record, the court of appeal ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding the defense’s expert testimony because it was relevant to whether he actually and reasonably believed he was defending himself.

The Courage of Our Convictions

Speaking of self-defense cases, here’s a story you don’t hear very often.

A retired judge in New York has prompted the courts there to overturn a murder conviction that he believes was a mistake, and here’s the thing: the judge says he’s the one who made the mistake.

In 1999, Frank Barbaro presided over the trial of a white man who was accused of shooting a black man outside a movie theater. The defendant had waived his right to a jury, so the case was tried to the court instead. The defendant argued that he shot the man in self-defense, but Barbaro didn’t believe him and thought he was motivated by racism. He found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to 15 years to life.

But the case continued to gnaw at Judge Barbaro, and over the years, his doubts grew. Along the way, he obtained a copy of the trial transcript, and as he read it, he says, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was so obvious I had made a mistake. I got sick. Physically sick.”

He now says it was his own bias against the defendant, whom he viewed as a bigot, that led him to convict. In 2011, he called the defendant’s lawyer to say so, and that phone call eventually led to a court hearing last December. At the hearing, Barbaro took the stand as a witness to testify that his bias had deprived the defendant of a fair trial. In response, prosecutors opposed the defense’s motion to set aside the verdict and called the judge’s memory and mental health into question. But Barbaro says his mind is clear as a bell, and he offered another explanation for the root of mistakes like his and others:

“I think too many times there is pressure to finish cases, get the cases done and off the calendar. This pressure dooms people to be convicted unjustly. Now I’m not saying every case, but one is too much.”

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