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COA says lawyer not ineffective for not asserting self-defense in DC

State v. Michael Ross Straight, 2022AP2012, 8/24/23, District 4 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

A woman identified as “A.B.” got out of her car and approached Straight with a machete. Straight, fearing for his life, grabbed A.B., knocked her to the ground, and took the machete from her. He then straddled A.B. with the point of the machete pointing toward her. A friend on scene yelled at Straight; Straight replied “what are you going to do about it?” Then he got up, dropped the machete, and walked away. A.B. departed in her car with the machete.

The state charged Straight with battery and disorderly conduct, and the case went to trial. Straight’s lawyer argued Straight had acted in self-defense as to the battery count, and the jury acquitted. The lawyer did not argue self-defense as to the disorderly conduct, and Straight was convicted of that count. He filed a motion alleging that this latter decision constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

At the Machner hearing, counsel testified that he and Straight had discussed and considered many possible approaches. He explained why he didn’t think self-defense would fly as to the DC: that Straight’s actions were justified to protect himself when he grabbed A.B., got her down, and disarmed her. This was the only touching of A.B. by Straight; thus the only conduct that could have constituted battery was undertaken in reasonable self-defense. In the lawyer’s (and the courts’) view, the disorderly conduct occurred afterward, when Straight was brandishing the machete at A.B. This, the lawyer said, could not be reasonably justified as self-defense.

Instead, counsel said he’d pursued a theory that it was A.B., rather than Straight, whose actions threatened to cause a disturbance and thus constituted DC. Straight points out on appeal that two people can be disorderly at one time: it’s entirely possible that a jury could believe that both A.B. and Straight had satisfied the elements of that offense. Given this, he argues, his lawyer’s strategy of showing A.B. to have been disorderly makes no logical sense. But the court of appeals, like the lower court, thinks the strategy was reasonable. (¶¶20-21).

Basically, the court’s logic seems to be that a jury might be persuaded that Straight’s brandishing was “caused” by A.B.’s earlier conduct, rather than by his own decision-making, even if it didn’t fit the elements of self-defense. But this doesn’t refute Straight’s point; it just restates the problem. An event can have more than one “cause,” so there’s no reason a jury couldn’t believe that both A.B.’s and Straight’s conduct tended to cause or provoke a disturbance, and was thus disorderly. In the end, the thrust of this opinion is that Strickland‘s required deference to trial counsel’s strategic decisions includes deference to theories of defense that almost make sense.

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