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Taylor v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

January 9, 2020

DANTE O. TAYLOR a/k/a DANTE O'BRYAN TAYLOR a/k/a DANTE O'BRIEN TAYLOR a/k/a DANTE TAYLOR
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 12/20/2016

          HARRISON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. CHRISTOPHER LOUIS SCHMIDT TRIAL JUDGE.

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: LISA D. COLLUMS ANGELA BROUN BLACKWELL WILLIAM CROSBY PARKER MITCHELL LANCE OWEN GLENN F. RISHEL, JR.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: OFFICE OF STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER GEORGE T. HOLMES HUNTER NOLAN AIKENS.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL ABBIE EASON KOONCE.

          DISTRICT ATTORNEY: JOEL SMITH.

          BEAM, JUSTICE.

         PART I:

         ¶1. A jury found Dante Taylor guilty of first-degree murder for the death of his uncle Willie Lee Taylor. Dante appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction and sentence. Taylor v. State, No. 2017-KA-01596-COA, 2018 WL 6326520 (Miss. Ct. App. Dec. 4, 2018), reh'g denied, (Miss. Ct. App. Apr. 2, 2019).[1] Dante timely filed a petition for writ of certiorari challenging the Court of Appeals' decision to affirm the trial court's grant of a pre-arming jury instruction. This Court granted certiorari. We hold that the trial court's decision to grant this instruction constituted reversible error. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, and we remand the case to the Circuit Court of Harrison County for a new trial. We further hold that pre-arming instructions will no longer be permitted in criminal trials in this state, as will be discussed in Part II of this opinion.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. In September 2014, Dante received a phone call from his sister Tiffany, who told him that their uncle Willie had jumped on her and choked her after an argument about her child's bicycle. Dante told her to call the police and to press charges. Dante's mother, Madeline Adams, testified at trial that she called Dante that night and told him to leave Willie alone. She also testified that Dante told her that Willie had put his hands on a female in the family for the last time and that Dante was "going to do [Willie]" or "punish" Willie.

         ¶3. At trial, Dante testified that he told Willie he would not let Willie do anything to him and that when he spoke with his mother, his mother told him that Willie was looking for him and wanted to kill him. Dante said he believed Willie was a real threat, so he obtained a pistol for his protection.

         ¶4. On the day of the shooting, Dante explained that he went to see his sister because Willie had come to the house and had told her that since she involved the police she would have to move out or else he would come back and "beat the 'F' out of her." When Dante arrived at the house, he explained that he tried to get his sister to leave but that she wanted to wait for the person who was going to get her car for her because she believed Willie would damage her car. Dante explained that he left to get cigarettes because he did not want to wait around at a house at which he knew Willie often was.

         ¶5. When Dante returned, his sister was still not ready to leave. Dante sat on the trunk of his vehicle to wait. He testified that he "had a feeling" that he needed to turn around. When he did, he saw Willie charging toward him saying, "I've got you're a-s-s now." Dante's testimony was that "that's when I just pulled out my gun and I shot him. I tried to hit him in his leg, but the fact that he is charging me, running up on me, I guess it kind of went up and hit him in the stomach." Dante further explained that he felt like his life was threatened because Willie was bigger than he.

         ¶6. The jury received instructions on first-degree murder, second-degree murder, imperfect self-defense manslaughter, and self-defense. Additionally, a pre-arming instruction was granted to the State, instruction S-13. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that Dante's self-defense claim was not preempted by the granting of a pre-arming instruction.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶7. "Jury instructions are generally within the discretion of the trial court and the settled standard of review is abuse of discretion." Moody v. State, 202 So.3d 1235, 1236-37 (Miss. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Bailey v. State, 78 So.3d 308, 315 (Miss. 2012)). Jury instructions must fairly announce the law of the case and not create an injustice against the defendant. Davis v. State, 18 So.3d 842, 847 (Miss. 2009) (citing Milano v. State, 790 So.2d 179, 184 (Miss. 2001)).

         DISCUSSION

         ¶8. This Court has said that "[t]he purpose of a pre-arming instruction is 'to inform the fact-finder that one cannot arm himself in advance when he is not in any physical danger, go forth and provoke a confrontation or difficulty with another, shoot the other, and then attempt to hide behind a smoke screen of self-defense.'" Taylor, 2018 WL 6326520, at *4 (quoting Hart v. State, 637 So.2d 1329, 1332 (Miss. 1994)). Pre-arming instructions "have been strongly criticized in a long line of Mississippi cases, allowing the instruction only in those extremely rare incidents where the instruction was supported by the evidence." Dew v. State, 748 So.2d 751, 754 (Miss. 1999).

         ¶9. In Boston v. State, this Court noted three cases in which such an instruction had been affirmed on appeal. Boston v. State, 234 So.3d 1231, 1235 (Miss. 2017) (citing Hart v. State, 637 So.2d 1329 (Miss. 1994); Hall v. State, 420 So.2d 1381 (Miss. 1982); Reid v. State, 301 So.2d 561 (Miss. 1974)). And Boston noted that, "[i]n each case, the record was uncontradicted that the defendants armed themselves with the intent to initiate a confrontation." Id. (emphasis added) (citing Hart, 637 So.2d at 1334; Hall, 420 So.2d at 1385; Reid, 301 So.2d at 563).

         ¶10. In Dew, the Court held that, "[w]hen there is a total lack of evidence, it is not proper for a court to give a pre-arming instruction." Dew, 748 So.2d at 754 (citing Hart, 637 So.2d at 1337). The State argues that Dante ignored this part of Dew and instead focused on the following statement: "When this ambiguity is present, [regarding who is the initial aggressor], a pre-arming instruction is not appropriate." Id. (citing Barnes v. State, 457 So.2d 1347, 1349-50 (Miss. 1984)). The State argues that ambiguity was not the Court's concern in Barnes but rather a lack of evidence, and the Dew Court incorrectly held that ambiguity precludes the giving of a pre-arming instruction. We find that Dew and Barnes specifically speak to the denial of a pre-arming instruction when evidence is conflicting or lacking altogether.

         ¶11. "The Dew Court based its conclusion on the principle that '[e]ven if the great weight of evidence against [the defendant] supports a contrary view, [the defendant] is still entitled to present his defense to the jury unimpaired by instructions . . . [that] preclude his right to self-defense.'" Boston, 234 So.3d at 1234-35 (alterations in original) (quoting Dew, 748 So.2d at 754). While evidence suggested that Dante armed himself after hearing from his mother that Willie wanted to kill him and after he had exchanged words with Willie, just as much evidence shows that Willie armed himself to protect not only himself but also his sister.

         ¶12. Here, though, conflicting evidence was adduced regarding whether Dante or Willie was the initial aggressor-even the trial judge deemed the evidence conflicting.

         ¶13. The Court of Appeals relied on Hall v. State. In Hall, Willie Hall was convicted of aggravated assault after he took a shotgun to the home of the victims when the victims had allegedly been rude to Hall's wife about late rent payments. Hall, 420 So.2d at 1385-86.

         ¶14. The Court of Appeals also relied on Jobe v. State, 97 So.3d 1267 (Miss. Ct. App. 2012), in which the defendant was convicted of aggravating assault for stabbing another person. The defendant became angry when he learned that all of the food grilled by the defendant had been eaten before he had a chance to partake. Id. at 1269. The defendant grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer and stated to others that "he would 'handle this.'" Id. at 1270. The Court of Appeals approved the use of a pre-arming instruction because Jobe was in no physical danger when he grabbed a knife and confronted the persons he thought were responsible for eating the food. Id.

         ¶15. Here, Dante armed himself with a pistol, went to a place where Willie frequented and lived, and, according to Dante, waited in the driveway for his sister. As the Court of Appeals dissent pointed out, "evidence [was] presented at trial [that] created a conflict as to whether Dante armed himself with the intention of initiating a confrontation with Willie and as to whether Dante was the initial aggressor." Taylor, 2018 WL 6326520, at *35 (Carlton, J., dissenting). The evidence the State adduced suggesting that Dante had armed himself with the intent of confronting Willie does not make clear whether he had done so for his own protection or whether he was trying to initiate a confrontation. Dante testified that he was at the house to pick up his sister because he believed that Willie was heading in the opposite direction at the time. Dante testified that he heard the night before that Willie wanted to kill him, so he was trying to avoid him.

         ¶16. When Dante heard from Tiffany the next day that Willie had threatened her, he headed over to her house, believing that Willie was not there but that he was out looking for him. When Dante arrived at Tiffany's house and she was not ready to leave, he left to get cigarettes, choosing not to hang around the house. When he returned, he testified that he was not there for very long before he got a feeling, turned around, and saw Willie charging him. At that point, Dante got off the trunk of his car and started walking toward Willie. Then, Dante pulled his gun and shot Willie.

         ¶17. As the State acknowledged at trial, there was a conflict in the evidence as to whether Willie was walking toward Dante or charging toward him. The State also acknowledged to the trial court that it was "convoluted" as to who was the "provoker or aggressor." According to a witness for the State, Willie had his fists up and was walking toward Dante. This was the State's claim throughout the case. Dante, however, testified that Willie was the initial aggressor and that when Dante first saw Willie, Willie was charging toward him.

         ¶18. We reiterate that "[i]t must be quite an overwhelming case on the facts to keep this instruction from being reversible error." Pulpus v. State, 82 Miss. 548, 34 So. 2, 3 (1903); see also Tate v. State, 95 Miss. 138, 48 So. 13, 13 (1909) ("We have over and over again warned circuit judges against giving this sort of charge, and wherever it is given the case will always be reversed, except where this court can say, looking over the completed record, with confidence, that the defendant's guilt is so overwhelmingly manifest that no other verdict than that of guilt could probably be rendered."); Lofton v. State, 79 Miss. 723, 31 So. 420, 421 (1902) (This instruction "can never be proper, save in the few, very, very rare cases where the case is such, on its facts, that a charge can be given embracing all the elements-not part of them, nor nearly all of them-essential to the estoppel.").

         ¶19. As we see the record, three questions were involved in this case for the jury to determine: whether Dante was guilty of murder, whether he was guilty of manslaughter, or whether the homicide was justifiable. While we find that supportive evidence was presented for each question to go to the jury, we do not find that the evidence overwhelmingly supports one over the other.

         ¶20. Nor do we find that this is one of those "very, very rare cases" in which the facts embrace all of the so-called elements necessary for a self-defense estoppel instruction. Lofton, 31 So. at 421.

         ¶21. This Court repeatedly has reversed cases in which a pre-arming instruction failed to include "any consideration of the doctrine of locus penitentiae[.]"[2] Pulpus, 34 So. at 3. In Patrick v. State, this Court reiterated the following:

"It is not every act of aggression or provocation which produces a difficulty, and in the course of which a necessity to kill another arises, that will preclude the slayer from availing himself of the right of self-defense; but it defends upon the character and quality of the act, and in some jurisdictions also ...

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