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What Happens When a Judge Fails to Give Proper Jury Instructions in a Domestic Violence Case?

Every Texas criminal defendant has the right to a trial by jury. This includes criminal allegations of domestic violence, or “family violence” as it is known in the Penal Code. A key element of a jury trial is that the judge must properly instruct jurors on the applicable law of each alleged offense. This means that in cases where domestic violence is just one of many charges, the jury must be separately instructed as to the legal standard of guilt for each specific charge. Additionally, the judge must instruct the jury on how to assess any affirmative defenses raised by the defendant.

Appeals Court Throws Out Domestic Violence and Related Convictions

A common affirmative defense in domestic violence cases is self-defense. For example, if there is a physical altercation between two spouses or partners, the defendant may argue at trial that the other person actually initiated the confrontation. Self-defense is permitted as an affirmative defense in Texas provided the defendant admits to the alleged act and produces additional evidence in support of their claim.

In a recent case, Alcoser v. State, a Texas appeals court actually threw out a domestic violence conviction because the judge failed to properly instruct the jury on self-defense. Indeed, the appeals court found the judge’s overall instructions to the jury problematic and threw out two other convictions arising from the same incident. The court also chided the prosecutor in the case for making “confusing and erroneous” statements to the jury during opening arguments.

Domestic Violence

Here is a brief explanation of what happened. The defendant was involved in what was described as an “on-again, off-again relationship” with a woman. The couple had a child together but were living apart. One day, the defendant went to the woman’s apartment when he thought she was not home to gather some of his personal belongings. It turned out the woman was home, and a “physical altercation” ensued.

Prosecutors later brought three criminal charges against the defendant: third-degree felony family violence, endangering a child, and interference with an emergency call. The defendant chose to testify at trial, arguing he acted in self-defense. That is to say, he alleged the woman provoked the physical altercation and that he acted reasonably to defend himself.

The jury found the defendant guilty of all three charges. But as noted above, the appeals court said the jury was never properly instructed. With respect to all three charges, the appeals court said the trial judge did not explain that each offense required proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a different “culpable mental state.” And with respect to the family violence charge, the judge failed to tell jurors they must return a not guilty verdict “should they find the elements of the affirmative defense to be true.” For that matter, the trial judge did not even define certain key legal terms for the jury to enable them to properly consider the self-defense claim.

Speak with a Galveston Domestic Violence Defense Attorney Today

If you are facing criminal domestic violence charges, you have the right to receive a fair trial in accordance with the laws of Texas. A qualified Houston domestic violence defense attorney can help ensure that judges and prosecutors follow the rules. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today if you need legal representation. Call (281) 280-0100