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The use of "deadly physical force" upon another person is justified where the defendant reasonably believes that such other person is using or about to use deadly physical force. Penal Law § 35.15(2)(a). However, a defendant may not use deadly physical force if he or she knows that with complete personal safety, to oneself and others he or she may avoid the necessity of so doing by retreating. Nor may a defendant who is the "initial aggressor" use deadly force, with limited exception. § 35.15(1)(b). Section 35.15 requires a jury to consider both subjective and objective factors in determining whether a defendant's conduct was reasonable. Thus, for a defendant to be entitled to a justification charge with respect to the use of deadly physical force, there must be a reasonable view of the evidence: (1) that the defendant actually believed that the use of deadly physical force was necessary to defend himself or herself against the use, or imminent use, of deadly physical force; and (2) that the defendant's belief was reasonable.
Defendant Darryl Brown fatally shot deceased in the lobby of an apartment building. An eyewitness described an escalating series of aggressive actions and verbal threats made by the deceased immediately before defendant fired his weapon. Defendant was charged with murder in the second-degree, manslaughter in the first-degree, and criminal use of a firearm in the first-degree. Prior to summations, defendant asked the court to instruct the jury on the defense of justification. The court denied the request, believing that there was no reasonable view of the evidence to support a justification charge. The jury rendered a verdict finding defendant not guilty of murder in the second degree and guilty of manslaughter in the first degree. The court sentenced defendant to 18 years in prison. Defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in failing to charge the jury on justification.
Under the circumstances, should the trial court have instructed the jury on the defense of justification?
The court noted that a trial court must instruct the jury on the defense of justification where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant, would reasonably support the defense. The use of "deadly physical force" upon another person was justified where the defendant "reasonably believed that such other person was using or about to use deadly physical force." In this case, the court held that the trial court's failure to instruct the jury on the defense of justification constituted reversible error, since the evidence supported the conclusion that defendant feared for his life, and reasonably believed that deadly physical force was necessary to defend himself against the deceased's imminent use of deadly physical force. Based on the testimony of the eyewitness, a jury could conclude that defendant reasonably believed that the deceased, who was younger and taller than him, and just two feet away, would gain control of his gun. Accordingly, the judgment was reversed, and the matter was remanded for new trial.