Opinion Says Instruction on Imperfect Self-Defense Instruction Should Have Been Given but Error Is Harmless
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Third District Court of Appeal held on Wednesday that a judge erred in declining to give an instruction on imperfect self-defense in the case of a man who shot a friend in the head nine times, then set his body on fire, claiming hat the victim had a knife and he feared an attack by him but, the panel said, the error was harmless in light of the evidence.
Justice William J. Murray Jr. authored the opinion which affirms the first degree murder conviction of Jason Carl Schuller. He rejected the notion that a jury might have found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter had it been instructed on imperfect self-defense, which he defined as “an actual, albeit unreasonable, belief in the need for self-defense that was not entirely delusional.”
The defendant’s version of what happened, Murray said, necessitated the instruction sought by his lawyer. But, he added, “a more favorable result was not reasonably probable given the overwhelming evidence that defendant was not acting in any form of self-defense.”
Schuller, a drifter who was staying in the Nevada County home of the victim, who was widely identified in news reports as William Tackett, testified that he and Tackett had consumed a drug and alcohol; Tackett went into then kitchen and fetched a knife; he thought his host was going to stab him; he saw a white angel who was there to protect him; he grabbed a gun and queried:
“Tell me right now. Are you Lucifer?”
Tackett nodded in the affirmative but, Schuller testified, he put the gun down and said something along the lines of: “Yeah, right dude...ha, ha, You’re not Lucifer.”
The defendant continued:
“As soon as I set the gun down, he went for the gun and raised the knife and tried like that and I remember just picking it back up and taking a step or two back and pulled the trigger.”
He said he tried to phone 911 but the land-line phone wasn’t working. Tackett’s cell phone kept ringing and, to silence it, he shot it.
Schuller set the body on fire, he explained, to “kill the demon or Lucifer” and “send it to hell.”
Police spotted him driving erratically and he led them in a three-county chase.
A jury in December 2017 found the defendant guilty of murder, but deadlocked on the issue of sanity. A second jury in March determined he was sane.
Nevada Superior Court Judge Candace S. Heidelberger on May 14, 2018, sentenced him to 50 years to life in prison.
“Here, the parties and the trial court struggled with the lack of published authority covering a situation such as presented here. No published case has addressed a court’s refusal to give an imperfect self-defense instruction where a defendant’s story is that a real person attacked him, but there are delusional components to the defendant’s description of what happened.”
He declared: “We conclude the refusal to instruct on imperfect self-defense here was error. While defendant’s testimony included evidence of delusion, his account pertaining to the actual shooting was not entirely delusional and thus provided substantial evidence of an actual but unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense.”
While Heidelberger erred in not instructing on voluntary manslaughter based on an imperfect self-defense theory, Murray said, “a more favorable result was not reasonably probable given the overwhelming evidence that defendant was not acting in any form of self-defense.”
He pointed out that Schuller’s account of what happened “radically changed leading up to trial.” His initial explanation to the police was that he thought Tackett was gay and was making an advance, saying nothing of self-defense.
Testimony of psychologists, the jurist said, “undercut the credibility of the claim he acted in self-defense, as well as the credibility of his claim he was suffering from delusions or hallucinating.”
He continued: “Defendant’s attempt to destroy the body (and perhaps the house) and his flight also undercut his claim of self-defense. Indeed, there was an inherent contradiction in defendant’s testimony that he tried to call the police after the shooting, only to be stymied by the ringing phone — yet, when police found him, rather than seek their help, he led them on a 38-mile pursuit, surrendering only after his car was rendered inoperable and an hour-long standoff had ensued.
“Indeed, a reasonable jury likely concluded defendant had the opportunity to get help while he was at or near the house—if he really wanted it. Defendant testified he wanted to call 911 but had trouble unlocking W.T.’s phone to do so. But when someone called (the daughter said she called numerous times after hearing noises), instead of answering the phone and asking the caller to get help, defendant shot the phone to make it stop ringing. Shortly thereafter, he fled without summoning help from anyone nearby, leaving the house to burn down.”
(Murray did not explain why he referred to the dead victim, who was identified in news accounts, by his initials.)
He also questioned the plausibility of Schuller engaging in “unilateral disarmament” by putting the gun down while Tackett was still wielding a knife, and added:
“[T]hat W.T. was shot nine times on the left side of his face and head, with some wounds “quite closely grouped,” suggested a personal motive, rather than panicked self-defense.”
The case is People v. Schuller, 2021 S.O.S. 6112
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