Change in Self-Defense Law Does Not Alter How Appeals Are Conducted Change in Self-Defense Law Does Not Alter How Appeals Are Conducted
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Change in Self-Defense Law Does Not Alter How Appeals Are Conducted

A 2018 state law change addressing the use of deadly force in self-defense does not change how an appeals court evaluates cases where a jury has rejected a self-defense claim, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

The 2018 law places the burden on prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the use of deadly force was not justified. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the shift in law does not change the way appeals courts assess the evidence produced at the trial.

The decision affirmed a Tenth District Court of Appeals decision upholding Kandele Messenger’s 2019 murder convictions. Writing for the Court, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated that placing the burden on the prosecution to prove a defendant did not act in self-defense did not make self-defense an element of the crime.

If self-defense were an element of the crime of murder, then an appeals court would conduct a “sufficiency of the evidence” review of the state’s case against self-defense. If the appeals court found the prosecution failed to meet the sufficiency claim, then it would conclude the defendant’s due process rights were violated, Justice Donnelly explained. Such a ruling would provide the defendant an additional opportunity to have a conviction overturned.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody Stewart joined the opinion. Seventh District Court of Appeals Judge Carol A. Robb, sitting for Justice Jennifer Brunner, also joined the opinion.

Man Kills Stepbrother During Confrontation at Home
Messenger and Richard Pack were stepbrothers and good friends. In February 2019, Pack had recently broken up with his girlfriend, who is the mother of his two children. Messenger was having a secret romantic relationship with Pack’s ex-girlfriend, and Pack learned about it.

Pack returned to his ex-girlfriend’s home in Columbus, which he had moved out of about a month earlier. Messenger was now residing there. At the house, Pack asked Messenger to speak with him, and then Pack started punching Messenger as Messenger apologized for the betrayal.

Pack left the house but returned later. Messenger began carrying a handgun, stating that he feared Pack would return armed with a gun because Pack threatened to kill him after the first incident.

When Pack returned, Messenger remained in the back yard. According to Messenger and other witnesses, Pack demanded that Messenger come inside the house. In the house, Pack came toward Messenger insisting they should hug. Messenger, fearing that Pack was attempting to disarm him, said he told Pack to stay away. Messenger said Pack kept moving toward him, and Messenger shot Pack 14 times.  According to one of Messenger’s neighbors, Messenger hurried into the house, slammed the door, and started shooting.

Messenger was charged with murder and felony murder.

Man Claims Self-Defense at Trial
Messenger claimed that he acted in self-defense against Pack’s attempt to disarm and attack him. The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office argued that Messenger was in a rage and shot wildly at Pack. The prosecutor maintained that Messenger was not acting in self-defense and could have remained in the back yard. Further, the number of shots fired indicated that Messenger used more than what was reasonable to repel an attacker, the office asserted.

After the prosecutor’s office presented its case, and after closing arguments, Messenger asked the trial judge to acquit him, claiming the prosecution failed to prove he committed the crimes. The trial judge denied the request, and the case was presented to the jury.

At the 2019 trial, the jury was instructed that the state law on self-defense, R.C. 2901.05(B)(1), which had been recently revised. The judge stated, “If you find that evidence was presented that tends to support the finding that the Defendant used deadly force in self-defense, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant did not properly act in self-defense.”

The jury found Messenger guilty on all counts, and he was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.

Messenger appealed to the Tenth District, arguing the state did not present sufficient evidence to establish that he had not acted in self-defense. If the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence regarding self-defense, he was entitled to be acquitted of the crime, he argued.

The Tenth District affirmed Messenger’s conviction.

Messenger appealed to the Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case.

Crimes and Defenses Reviewed Differently, Supreme Court Explained
Messenger argued to the Supreme Court that when the law was changed to shift the burden to the prosecutor to prove a defendant was not acting in self-defense, that change made self-defense a new element of the criminal charges he faced.

Justice Donnelly explained that on appeal, elements of a crime are reviewed under a sufficiency of evidence standard. The revised version of the law did not change self-defense to an element of a crime, but it remained a defense to a crime, he wrote.

Defenses to crime are reviewed under a different standard – manifest weight of the evidence. Under a successful manifest weight challenge, an appeals court can order a new trial, but not acquit a defendant, the Court wrote.

The opinion explained that a prosecutor must provide legally sufficient evidence of each element of a charged crime to the jury. If not, the jury cannot consider the charge, and the defendant must be acquitted. If on appeal an appellate court finds the prosecutor did not produce legally sufficient evidence of the crime, the appellate court can acquit the defendant.

Because the changed law did not make self-defense a new element of the crime, the prosecution only had to initially prove the existing elements of murder and felony murder, the Court stated. Because the jury found Messenger guilty on all counts, the prosecutor did meet the burden under the law of proving that Messenger committed the crimes, the Court concluded.

The Tenth District assessed Messenger’s claim of self-defense under a manifest weight of the evidence standard. The Supreme Court stated the Tenth District conducted the proper review of Messenger’s self-defense claim because Messenger presented some evidence he acted in self-defense.

The Court wrote that the jury believed the evidence proved Messenger was not acting in self-defense and convicted him. The Tenth District conducted the proper review of the jury’s verdict and affirmed the conviction, the Supreme Court concluded.

2021-0944. State v. Messenger, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-4562.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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