Earlier this year, in State v. Gomola, ___ N.C. App. ___, 810 S.E.2d 797 (Feb. 6, 2018), the Court of Appeals addressed a self-defense issue that has sometimes puzzled the North Carolina courts. The question in Gomola was whether a person can rely on self-defense to a charge of involuntary manslaughter. The Court answered with a decisive yes . . . if the basis for the involuntary manslaughter charge is an unlawful act such as an assault or affray.
The Conflict in Gomola. The events leading to the death of the decedent in Gomola were as follows. Some of the evidence came from a video of the incident, some from the testimony of witnesses. The defendant and friends were at a waterfront bar overlooking a marina in Morehead City. One of the defendant’s friends saw another customer throw a beer bottle over the railing into the water and asked the customer not to do it again. When the defendant’s friend made this request, the decedent shoved him. The defendant stepped in and shoved the decedent, who fell over the railing into the water. The video showed that within six to eight seconds the people at the bar were trying to locate the decedent in the water. He did not resurface and drowned. An autopsy showed that the decedent had a blood alcohol content of .30 or more at the time of his death.
The evidence conflicted over whether the defendant did more than shove the decedent. Some testimony indicated that he flipped the decedent over the railing, but other testimony indicated that his role was limited to an initial shove after his friend was shoved by the decedent. The video did not capture the entire scene.
The defendant was charged with involuntary manslaughter. The trial judge instructed the jury that it could find the defendant guilty if it found beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted unlawfully and that his unlawful act proximately caused the decedent’s death. The trial judge further instructed the jury that the “unlawful act” was the crime of participating in an affray, a fight between two or more people in a public place. The trial judge denied the defendant’s request to instruct the jury on defense of others, and the jury convicted the defendant of involuntary manslaughter.
The Court’s Decision. The Court of Appeals held that the trial judge properly instructed the jury on involuntary manslaughter because the jury could find that the defendant acted unlawfully in shoving the decedent and that the shove proximately caused the decedent’s death. The trial judge erred, however, by refusing to instruct the jury on defense of others as a defense to the crime of affray, the underlying act for involuntary manslaughter in the case.
The Court recognized that a person may legally use nondeadly force in defense of another person (as well as in defense of one’s self) in response to unlawful force. The Court found that the use of nondeadly force in defense of others is a valid defense under both the common law and statutory law, specifically, G.S. 14-51.3, which describes the statutory standard for defense of person (self or others). The Court held that the defense is proper in a case in which the defendant is charged with affray or assault as well as in a case in which the defendant is charged with involuntary manslaughter based on those offenses and, presumably, other acts to which self-defense would normally apply. Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant, as courts must do in deciding whether to instruct the jury on a defense, the Court concluded that the jury could have found from the evidence that the defendant’s actions were limited to protecting his friend, who had just been assaulted by the decedent. The defendant therefore was entitled to an instruction on defense of others in connection with the trial judge’s instruction on affray. Had the jury received this additional instruction, it could have found that the defendant’s involvement in the affray was lawful and therefore that the defendant was not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial.
Open Issues. The Court of Appeals distinguished an earlier decision, State v. Alston, 161 N.C. App. 367 (2003), which held that “‘self-defense, as an intentional act, [cannot] serve as an excuse for the negligence or recklessness required for a conviction of involuntary manslaughter’ under the culpable negligence prong.” Gomola, 810 S.E.2d at 802 (quoting Alston) (emphasis in original). The Gomola court found this holding inapplicable to the case before it because the State’s theory was that the defendant intentionally committed an unlawful act by participating in an affray. “And certainly self-defense/defense of others may serve as an excuse for intentionally participating in a fight.” Id.
The Court in Gomola did not rule out the possibility that self-defense or defense of others may be available as a defense to involuntary manslaughter when the State relies on the culpable negligence prong. In the earlier Alston decision, the defendant challenged his conviction of involuntary manslaughter on the ground that the trial judge erred in failing to instruct the jury on self-defense at all. In finding that the failure to instruct on self-defense did not invalidate the involuntary manslaughter conviction, the court reasoned that a reasonable juror could have found from the evidence that the defendant and decedent were struggling with each other, that the decedent introduced a gun during the struggle, and that at some point during the struggle the defendant handled the gun and shot the decedent. From this evidence, according to the court in Alston, the jury could have found that the defendant shot the decedent in a culpably negligent or reckless manner without the intent to assault or kill him. If the jury so found, self-defense would not be a defense because it requires an intentional act.
The distinction in Alston seems questionable or, at the least, difficult to apply. It isn’t clear from the decision what actions the defendant took that were allegedly reckless or culpably negligent. In trying to wrest the gun from his assailant, the defendant in Alston certainly was acting intentionally and defensively even if the fatal shot was unintentional. It would probably come as a surprise to someone who found himself in that situation to learn that the law of self-defense would not protect his actions.
Other decisions over the last several years have also imposed intent requirements that people might consider counterintuitive. See John Rubin, A Warning Shot about Self-Defense, N.C. Crim. L. Blog (Sept. 7, 2016). For example, in State v. Cook, ___ N.C. App. ___, 802 S.E.2d 575 (2017), the Court of Appeals held that the defendant was not entitled to rely on self-defense against a felony assault charge when he feared that intruders were trying to break down the door to his bedroom and he fired at the door in response. (The defendant’s evidence also showed that he jumped out of the window into the snow, wearing only a tank top and underwear, and ran to a neighbor’s house to call the police, not realizing that the police were the ones trying to get into his bedroom.) The Court of Appeals found that the defendant’s testimony that he shot at the door, not at his attackers, showed that he did not fear death or great bodily injury, a requirement for the use of deadly force in self-defense. According to the decision, a defendant is not entitled to have the jury instructed on self-defense if he testifies that he was not trying to shoot his attacker.
Two of the three appellate judges in Cook expressed doubts about this approach. One dissented and one concurred, with the concurring judge observing that the dissenting judge’s approach “more accurately represents what most citizens would believe our law to be and what I believe self-defense law should be in our state.” 802 S.E.2d at 579 (emphasis in original). The concurring judge encouraged the Supreme Court “to reverse our ruling today and accept the reasoning of the dissent.” Id. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the decision per curiam without elaboration. ___ N.C. ___, 809 S.E.2d 566 (2018).
A simpler approach would seem to be to consider whether the defendant intended to take the actions he took to defend himself—whether they involved struggling over a gun, shooting at a door, or other defensive actions. See generally 2 Wayne R. LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law § 10.4(c) at 200 & nn. 32–33 (3d ed. 2018) (defendant must have a reasonable belief “as to the need for force of the amount used”); Beard v. United States, 158 U.S. 550, 560 (1895) (question for jury was whether defendant had reasonable grounds to believe and in good faith believed he could not save his life or protect himself from great bodily harm “except by doing what he did”). This approach would still require a determination of whether the defendant acted reasonably in taking the actions he took and met the other requirements of self-defense. But, the defense would not stand or fall on the basis of whether the defendant acted with a more specific intent.
Earlier decisions in North Carolina provide some support for this approach. See John Rubin, The Law of Self-Defense in North Carolina at 22 & n.4, 41–53 (UNC School of Government, 1996). North Carolina’s self-defense statutes also may have an impact. G.S. 14-51.3 states that a person is justified in using force other than deadly force when the person reasonably believes that “the conduct” is necessary to defend one’s self or other person against another’s use of “unlawful force.” The quoted language may justify a person’s use of nondeadly force against unlawful force, whether deadly or nondeadly, if it was reasonable for the person to believe that his or her actions were necessary.
By focusing on the defensive action taken by the defendant and not the result intended, decisions such as Gomola come closer to this approach. Intent requirements are currently a part of our self-defense law, however. Although difficult to apply in real time, they must be carefully considered by defendants who are charged criminally and who are evaluating the availability of self-defense in their case.