What Happens When a Houston Criminal Court Judge Gives Bad Jury Instructions?

May 9th, 2018 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense

When you are tried for any kind of criminal offense in Texas, the trial judge is responsible for instructing the jury as to the “law applicable to the case.” Although the prosecution and defense may request certain instructions, it is ultimately the judge’s responsibility–even without prompting from the lawyers–to properly explain the law to the jury, including all of the elements necessary to support a conviction. If the judge issues an incorrect or incomplete instruction, the defendant may have grounds to appeal a subsequent conviction, even if the defense did not object during the trial.

New Trial Ordered for Houston-area Man Convicted of Aggravated Assault

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently addressed just such a situation. This case began with a late-night fight outside of a Houston-area auto body shop. The defendant was partying with friends when two other men arrived. One of the men got into an altercation with the defendant. What started out as a fist fight quickly escalated, however, when the defendant pulled out a knife and repeatedly stabbed the other man, who later died as a result of his injuries.

The district attorney charged the defendant with murder. He was also charged with the “lesser included” offense of aggravated assault. At trial, the defendant testified that he “acted in self-defense.” He said the victim had known “gang affiliations and a reputation for violence.” The defendant further claimed the victim started the fight, and that he only pulled out his knife because he believed the victim had a gun.

Although the defendant’s attorney did not request a specific jury instruction on self-defense, the trial judge nevertheless provided one–but only with respect to the murder charge. The judge explained the jury should find the defendant not guilty if the evidence showed he had a “reasonable expectation” that the victim was about to cause him “death or serious bodily injury from the use of unlawful deadly force” and that the defendant’s actions were “immediately necessary” to protect himself. The judge did not offer a similar instruction regarding the aggravated assault charge, and the defense did not object at the time. Consequently, the jury acquitted the defendant of murder but convicted him of aggravated assault.

The Court of Criminal Appeals said that notwithstanding the defense’s failure to object, or even request a self-defense instruction itself, the judge’s “incomplete charge” to the jury constituted an “egregious harm” to the defendant’s rights and therefore justified a new trial on the aggravated assault charge. When a judge takes it upon herself to issue a self-defense instruction, the appeals court said, she must “apply that general charge to every lesser-included offense for which that justification would serve to ‘acquit’ the defendant.”

Make Sure the Court Gets the Law Right in Your Case

Many criminal defendants are unfairly convicted in Texas courts due to incorrect or incomplete jury instructions. An experienced Houston criminal defense lawyer can help make sure your trial judge gets the law right. If you have been charged with a serious crime and need help, call the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston, or League City today at (281) 280-0100.

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