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SCOW to address challenge to muddled jury instructions on self defense, accident

State v. Joseph T. Langlois, 2016AP1409-CR, petition for review of a published court of appeals decision granted 12/13/17; case activity (including briefs)

Issues (composed by On Point):

1. Was trial counsel ineffective for failing to object to the jury instructions for self defense and accident on the lesser included charge of homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon?

2. Alternatively, is a new trial in the interest of justice warranted because the erroneous jury instructions on self defense and accident prevented the real controversy from being tried?

3. Did the erroneous instructions on self defense and accident violate due process by relieving the state of the burden to prove every element of the offense?

4. Was the evidence sufficient to support the jury’s verdict of guilty of homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon?

The important issue in this case is whether the self defense and accident instructions were wrong. Thus, the court’s decision will be significant because it will clarify (or perhaps muddle) the correct way to instruct on self defense and accident in cases charging reckless or negligent crimes.

Langlois was charged with first degree reckless homicide of his brother. The two were fighting, and Langlois’s brother seemed to have had the upper hand, having put a choking headlock on Langlois. But he let Langlois go, and Langlois grabbed a knife. When his brother started in again Langlois stabbed his brother once, killing him. At trial, after the evidence was in, the state asked that the jury be instructed on the lesser included offenses of second degree reckless homicide and homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon. Langlois’s lawyer asked for self defense and accident instructions and accepted the instructions the court came up with. The jury found Langlois guilty of negligent homicide.

The court’s instructions on self defense and accident for first degree reckless were fine. In particular, the self defense instruction (Wis. J.I.—Criminal 801) included the modifications made after State v. Austin, 2013 WI App 96, 349 Wis. 2d 744, 836 N.W.2d 833, which held that the previous version of the instruction didn’t make it clear the state has the burden to prove the absence of self defense. Langlois, 377 Wis. 2d 302, ¶¶3-6. Oddly, however, when it went on to describe second degree reckless homicide, the circuit court didn’t reinstruct the jury on self defense or accident. Id., ¶7. Worse, when it came to the last lesser, negligent homicide, the court’s instruction on self defense left out the key paragraph that expressly describes the state’s burden, thus making it markedly different from the instruction given on first degree reckless. Id., ¶¶55-56 (Reilly, J., dissenting). The accident instruction likewise differed from the reckless instruction, as instead of referring to negligence generally it inserted an incomplete description of the negligence standard, thus misleading the jury about how to apply the accident defense to that crime. Id., ¶¶58-60 (Reilly, J., dissenting).

A majority of the court of appeals found no problem with this mishmash method of instruction, essentially concluding that because the instructions must be viewed in their entirety, and not in isolation, the jury would have pieced together the missing bits of the instructions on its own. Id., ¶¶27-32, 34-35. The dissenting judge points out the fallacy of this reasoning: The circuit court told the jury the instructions were “complicated” and, as is standard, that they had to follow the law as the judge gave it to them, and it then proceeded to give distinctly different instructions for the defenses on the negligent homicide charge compared to the reckless offenses. Id., ¶¶54, 56, 59-60 & n.4. We’ll soon see whether the supreme court also thinks a jury presented with complicated instructions on multiple crimes with different defenses is capable of filling in the gaps, or fixing the mistakes, in the jury instructions, even though the gaps and mistakes evaded the notice of a trial judge, prosecutor, and defense lawyer.

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