SCoVA Overturns a Manslaughter Conviction Based on Self-Defense

Yesterday the Supreme Court of Virginia overturned a manslaughter conviction in the Case of Hines v. Commonwealth of Virginia. Senior Justice Lacy, writing for the Court, held that the trial court’s conclusion that Mr. Hines had failed to establish a claim of self-defense was “plainly wrong” and not supported by the record.

Mr. Hines was indicted for first degree murder of his sister’s live-in boyfriend Wayne Hudson. In the early hours of May 20, 2011, Mr. Hudson was drunk and in the Defendant’s home. He had been drinking since the afternoon of the previous day and had become belligerent. Several people tried to get the victim to calm down but couldn’t. In the “heat of this out-of-control temper tantrum happening in his own house” the “Defendant confronted Mr. Hudson.” During this confrontation, the Defendant saw that Mr. Hudson had a gun in his hand. Upon realizing this, the Defendant retreated to another room in his house and retrieved his own gun. He testified at trial that he planned to confront Mr. Hudson with his weapon thinking that this would make Mr. Hudson put his gun down. But, according to the defendant, that’s not what happened. Instead, when the Defendant returned to the room the victim pointed his weapon at the defendant and the defendant shot him.

Whether the victim even had a gun at all was “hotly contested” during the trial. The Commonwealth urged the trial court to find that the victim was not armed and one eyewitness, who told the police immediately after the incident that he thought the victim had a gun, changed his testimony at trial. But the trial court found rejected the Commonwealth’s argument and found the Defendant’s testimony that the victim was armed to be “credible.”

Nonetheless, the trial court found the Defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The trial court explained that “Defendant had the opportunity to retreat and did in fact retreat. He cannot assert any privilege to return to the room with a weapon of his own and trigger a shoot-out with . . . Mr. Hudson.” It went on to say that he “should have retreated to safety but instead got a gun of his own, and out of fear and upon impulse, without conscious reflection or malice, he shot the victim.”

The Defendant then filed a motion to vacate his conviction. He challenged the trial court’s conclusion that he had a duty to retreat to safety when attacked in his own house. The trial court acknowledged that the Defendant was not obliged to retreat—and redacted that language from its holding—but denied the motion to vacate. It explained that the fact that he could retreat to safety meant that he “had no reasonable belief that the victim was going to hurt him or his family.”

The Supreme Court of Virginia disagreed. It found that the high burden set in Virginia code § 8.01-680, which provides that the judgment of a trial court is presumed to be correct and will be reversed only if it is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it, was met.

This was largely because the trial court itself found the Defendant to be a credible witness. The Defendant testified “repeatedly” that the victim had pointed his gun at him when he reentered the room and that, at that point, he feared for his life. The Supreme Court also noted the Defendant’s wife told the 911 operator that the victim had “pulled a gun on her husband and her husband had shot him.” Moreover, the Supreme Court noted that there was nothing in the record to support the trial court’s conclusion that the Defendant returned to the room with a gun pointed at the victim.”

Although short, the opinion serves as a good refresher on Virginia’s laws of self-defense. Senior Justice Lacy laid out four principles of law that were relevant to the case: (1) “establish a claim of self-defense, a defendant must show that he reasonably feared death or serious bodily harm at the hands of his victim,” McGhee v. Commonwealth, 219 Va. 560, 562, 248 S.E.2d 808, 810 (1978), (2) the question of “whether the danger is “reasonably apparent is judged from the defendant’s viewpoint at the time of the incident,” (3) the defendant must also show that he was in imminent danger of harm by pointing to an overt act or other circumstance that affords an immediate threat to safety,  Commonwealth v. Cary, 271 Va. 87, 99, 623 S.E.2d 906, 912 (2006), and (4) a homeowner who is assaulted in his own home has the right to use whatever force necessary to repel the aggressor, Fortune v. Commonwealth, 133 Va. 669, 687, 112 S.E. 861, 867 (1922).

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