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A defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed on his theory of the case if there is evidence to support that theory. Failure to so instruct is reversible error.
Defendant Joshua Frank Lee Harvill sold cocaine to Michael Nolte in a controlled buy organized by the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Office. Defendant was arrested after the transaction and charged with unlawful delivery of cocaine. At trial, defendant admitted his participation in the transaction and relied solely on the defenses of duress and entrapment. Specifically, defendant claimed that he sold cocaine to Nolte because he feared that, if he did not, the buyer would hurt him or his family. The trial court refused to give the duress instruction on the ground that evidence of an explicit threat was necessary, whereas defendant's evidence showed only an implicit threat. A jury convicted defendant of unlawful delivery of cocaine. The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. The appellate court assumed, without deciding, that the trial court erred by refusing a duress instruction, but concluded that any error was harmless. Defendant petitioned for review.
The court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion when it refused defendant's duress instruction based on an erroneous view of the law. Properly defining "threat" to include both explicit and implicit threats served the purpose of the duress statute, Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.16.060. Defendant presented sufficient evidence of fear arising from an implicit threat, and the jury should have had the opportunity to decide if this fear was reasonable and if defendant would have sold cocaine to the buyer absent the threat. Irrespective of any finding on entrapment, the jury could have found defendant not guilty on the basis of duress because he testified that he reasonably perceived the buyer's requests for drugs as an implicit threat, and the buyer's testimony substantiated important facts underlying defendant's testimony. The error was not harmless.