One of my biggest frustrations when watching high profile cases in the news is the impatience often voiced over delays by prosecutors in making filing decisions. The calls for justice, while important in order to keep the tragedy of the events in the public eye are often misplaced. A full and complete investigation is always the most important thing needed before a filing decision is made. This is to make sure that the guilty party is found, that a case can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, AND to make sure that the charges filed are justified by the evidence.
On average about 25% of criminal cases submitted are not filed at all for a variety of reasons: lack of sufficient evidence, a valid affirmative defense is present, cases are declined in lieu of filing probation or parole violations, and sometimes they are declined in the interests of justice as a whole.
A prosecutor’s role is also making the decision not to file a criminal case when the circumstances warrant it. This role is rarely discussed in the public forum but is one of the most important discretionary parts of the job.
#17 highlights this important function perfectly. A case where the issue of valid self-defense was put in front of a jury. If a defendant has an argument for self-defense at all, the prosecution has an additional element of affirmatively proving the defendant did not act in reasonable self-defense. Proving a negative is hard and we typically rely on: witness statements, the amount force used, whether a weapon was involved, statements made by the defendant (if any), injuries both type and location, as well as statements made to medical professionals, and prior history between the parties. Credibility of witnesses becomes key and often these are the cases where defendant takes the stand on his own behalf.
Our victims in this case went to the hospital to be treated for stab wounds (one had puncture wounds on his hands and another had a significant stab wound on her wrist). Medical staff contacted law enforcement based on the nature of the injuries. While the victims were being interviewed defendant showed up at the hospital for medical treatment as well.
Two days prior to the stabbing the victims a verbal argument with defendant over rent. Defendant left. On this day, the victims learned the defendant had not actually left the property, but had simply moved his RV to a different location nearby. The victims confronted defendant and asked him to leave. Defendant emerged from his trailer with an ice pick or knife and swung it at one of the victims which skinned her arm. Defendant then punched the same victim in her face. The second victim ran towards the defendant but slipped and fell. Defendant jumped on top of the the second victim and tried to stab him in the face. This victim attempted to block the defendant by holding defendant’s arm. Defendant told the victims to leave and they did.
This case was a credibility fight between the victims (who were both stabbed) and the defendant. All of the parties were relatively unsympathetic as the fight related to a marijuana grow that had fallen apart. Each party blamed the other for wanting to grow marijuana illegally. All had criminal histories and issues with their temper.
During the trial the victim’s and the defendant’s version of events varied dramatically. At the time of arrest law enforcement never visited the scene of the crime or did any investigation outside of speaking to all of the parties as they were being treated at the hospital for their injuries. This allowed defendant the freedom to weave his own version of events at trial given the limited amount of information that was available.
At trial defendant claimed he was renting property from the victims to grow marijuana. Two days prior to this event, defendant showed up and there was an argument about the rent as well as the Prop 215 recommendations needed to actually grow weed. Defendant then made arrangements with a neighbor to grow the marijuana on his property instead and parked his RV on an easement for that property until it could be figured out where the RV would be located.
Defendant said the victims arrived at his RV on this day with chainsaws and tried to fall a tree on the RV. Defendant grabbed a stick and told them to stop. Per defendant, one of the victims then grabbed a hunting knife. Defendant punched that victim in the face and grabbed her hand. Defendant said the second victim then came up on the defendant and that is when he was struck with a knife. Defendant said the victims then got into their vehicle, attempted to run him over, and then left.
While the defendant’s version was certainly inconsistent with the injuries sustained, by the time this case went to trial, any evidence on the property proving or disproving the attempts to cut a tree down were long gone.
I inherited this case as part of my case load when a change in assignments was made and it had been set for trial numerous times before. We were at the point where further investigation was unlikely to help resolve any potential self-defense claims. There was no information I had to disprove the claims of self-defense which came out on the witness stand. Something as simple as taking photos of the area at the time of the incident to prove or disprove attempts to fall a tree would have made all the difference. But that was not done.
I went up against one of the most seasoned defense attorneys in our County at the time during this case, which meant this case was nothing short of a dog fight. After closing arguments, defense counsel whispered to me, “I’m going to win this one.” Which is a rare brag from any counsel one way or the other.
But he was right, proving the negative in this case with the state of the evidence and the credibility of all parties involved in questions meant a not guilty verdict and a tough lesson on investigation prior to filing in claims involving self-defense.