Jury instructions are directions from a judge to the jury that provide guidance in their deliberations to reach a verdict. These instructions are meant to help jurors understand the applicable laws and how they should assess the facts of the case.
Sadly, there are instances where such instructions are flawed and can unjustly influence a jury’s decision-making process.
In State v. Oguta, the Defendant sought to appeal his conviction on a fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon charge because the trial court judge did not grant his request for a self-defense jury instruction.
The case against the Defendant stemmed from his conduct during a physical altercation with two of his neighbors. At some point during the altercation, the Defendant pulled out a knife and stabbed one of his neighbors. Although he claimed to be acting in self-defense, the Defendant was arrested and charged with (1) aggravated assault, (2) possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and (3) unlawful possession of a weapon.
After the submission of evidence, the Defendant requested a self-defense jury instruction in connection with all three charges. The State opposed such instruction for the unlawful possession of a weapon charge. In his ruling the trial court judge only gave the self-defense jury instruction in connection with the aggravated assault and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose charges.
The unlawful possession of a weapon charge was the only charge without a self-defense jury instruction. It also was the only charge Defendant was convicted of. On appeal, the Defendant argued that the trial court judge improperly declined to instruct the jury on self-defense.
On June 17, 2021, the Appellate Division agreed with the Defendant and held that the trial court erred in refusing a self-defense jury instruction for the unlawful possession of a weapon charge.
The Court found that although an instruction on self-defense is often inapplicable to the offense alleged, there are circumstances in which self-defense is relevant.
Citing New Jersey Supreme Court cases, the Court held that self-defense may be considered when a defendant makes “spontaneous use” of a weapon in response to an immediate danger.
In this case, the Defendant testified that he had a knife in his pocket because he used it to cut open boxes at work and that was where he intended to go prior to the altercation. The Defendant also testified that he only pulled out the knife during the altercation to defend himself against the neighbors that attacked him.
Based on the testimony suggesting that Defendant made spontaneous use of the knife in response to the neighbors attack, the Court held that the trial court judge should have instructed the jury that self-defense could be a justification to the charge of unlawful possession of a weapon.
The Court also found that failure to give the self-defense jury instruction was capable of producing an unjust result.
This case serves as example that it is critical that jurors are given proper and accurate guidance in their deliberations erroneous jury instructions are capable of producing unfair verdicts.
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