Monday, April 3, 2006
Ninth Circuit Clarifies Elements of Self-Defense Claim
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A defendant claiming self-defense need not prove that he or she lacked a reasonable alternative to using force, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The court overturned Donzell Wayne Biggs’ conviction and seven-year prison term for assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of contraband in prison, saying he was improperly denied the right to present a defense.
Biggs, a convicted murderer and federal prisoner since 1977, was charged following a 2001 fight with a fellow inmate. At the time, he was assigned to administrative segregation at the federal penitentiary in Lompoc and was confined to a two-person cell 23 hours a day.
The fight occurred during Biggs’ one-hour recreation period. While in a recreation cage with three other prisoners, Biggs stabbed one of the other inmates, Michael Smith, with an eight-inch homemade knife.
Biggs claimed that he stabbed Smith because Smith had threatened him on the way to the cage and had been attempting to procure a knife from other inmates. U.S. District Judge Lourdes G. Baird of the Central District of California, who has since retired, limited Biggs’ right to present evidence, finding that he could not show that there were no reasonable alternatives to the use of force and thus could not make out a prima-facie claim of self-defense.
Biggs then agreed to plead guilty, reserving the right to appeal.
Senior Judge Robert Beezer, writing for the Court of Appeals, said the Ninth Circuit requires a “no reasonable alternative” showing in support of a claim of justification, “whether labeled duress, coercion, or necessity,” but not to show self-defense.
“Self-defense is distinct from these other justification defenses and is a viable defense for any defendant who presents evidence that he had a reasonable belief that the use of force was necessary to defend himself against the immediate use of unlawful force,” Beezer wrote.
A Seventh Circuit decision to the contrary was erroneously reasoned, the judge said. Since the district judge’s ruling in Biggs’ case was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, reversal is required, he said.
Senior Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall and Judge Kim M. Wardlaw concurred.
Attorneys on appeal were Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason De Bretteville and Deputy Federal Public Defender Elizabeth A. Newman.
The case is United States v. Biggs, 04-50613.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company