EDNA MAE SANDERS v. STATE OF MISSISSIPPI
SUPREME COURT OF MISSISSIPPI
77 So. 3d 484; 2012 Miss. LEXIS 22
January 12, 2012, Decided
COUNSEL: FOR APPELLANT: BRIAN B. ALEXANDER, WILL BARDWELL.
FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, BY: LADONNA C. HOLLAND, W. GLENN WATTS.
JUDGES: LAMAR, JUSTICE. WALLER, C.J., CARLSON AND DICKINSON, P.JJ., RANDOLPH, KITCHENS, CHANDLER AND PIERCE, JJ., CONCUR. KING, J., NOT PARTICIPATING.
OPINION BY: LAMAR
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI
NATURE OF THE CASE: CRIMINAL – FELONY
LAMAR, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:
P1. A Hancock County jury convicted Edna Mae Sanders of murdering her husband, Sherman Sanders, and the judge sentenced her to life in prison. The Court of Appeals reversed her conviction and remanded for a new trial based on the trial court’s error in denying a “no duty to retreat” instruction, and its error in suppressing evidence. Sanders v. State, 77 So. 3d 497, 2011 Miss. App. LEXIS 130, 2011 WL 813454, at *9 (Miss. Ct. App. Mar. 8, 2011). We granted the State’s petition for writ of certiorari. After full review, we agree with the Court of Appeals’ ultimate disposition. We write to address Sanders’s Confrontation Clause argument and to clarify the Court of Appeals’ discussion of the “Castle Doctrine.”
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
P2. We limit our recitation of the facts to those relevant to the issues we discuss. In July 2006, Sherman Sanders was severely burned with cooking oil, resulting in his death several days later. While the cause of death is undisputed, the circumstances leading up to the incident are not. The State theorized that Edna Mae Sanders threw a pot of hot cooking oil on Sherman while he was sleeping in their bed, as Sherman made several statements to that effect to the first responders. But Sanders testified that she threw the oil to protect herself and her children after Sherman had violently attacked her.
P3. Before trial, Sanders filed a motion in limine, asking the trial court to exclude Sherman’s incriminating statements to the first responders, but the trial court denied the motion after a hearing. At trial, the State called Deputy Brandon Hendry to testify. Hendry testified that he was dispatched on a 911 call from a neighbor who reported “hearing a subject yelling for help and blowing a horn” in the yard. He was the first on the scene, and as he approached Sherman, he asked “what happened?” Hendry testified that Sherman responded that “he was asleep and he don’t [sic] know why his wife poured burning oil on him.” The State also called Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Lieutenant Michael Munger to testify. Munger also was dispatched to the Sanders’s residence the evening of the incident. Upon his arrival, Munger testified that he had asked Sherman what happened, and Sherman had responded that “he was sleeping and he woke up to his wife pouring oil on him.”
P4. Sanders took the stand in her own defense and testified that Sherman had begun a violent physical altercation with her that evening. She testified that he had punched her and dragged her down the hallway, and that he had leaned her across the couch and had choked her. She screamed for her daughter and son to get out of the house. She testified that she had thought her life and her children’s lives were in danger. At some point, Sherman released her and told her “what he was going to do.” 1 Sanders testified that she had thought “this man is going to, he’s going to kill me,” so she had grabbed the pot of oil off the stove and had followed him down the hallway to their bedroom. Sanders said when she had seen Sherman pull “the mattress back and [come] around with that gun,” she had tossed the grease on him and ran.
1 Sanders was not allowed to relate Sherman’s actual statement.
P5. At the conclusion of the evidence, Sanders requested a “no duty to retreat” instruction — an instruction that would inform the jury that she was under no duty to retreat from an assault against her in her own home. But the trial judge refused the instruction, stating that he thought it was “inconsistent with the evidence.” The jury found Sanders guilty of murder, and the trial judge sentenced her to life in prison.
P6. Sanders appealed, arguing that the trial judge erred when he (1) allowed the first responders to relay Sherman’s incriminating statements; (2) refused to instruct the jury that she had no duty to retreat; and (3) declined to admit evidence of her state of mind that would support her theory of self-defense. The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge that Sherman’s statements were properly admitted under exceptions to the hearsay rule, but failed to address Sanders’s claim that the statements violated her right to confront witnesses. The Court of Appeals found error and remanded for a new trial.
P7. The State filed a motion for writ of certiorari, which we granted. The State argues that the Court of Appeals erred when it (1) found that Sanders was entitled to a “no duty to retreat” instruction, because the evidence showed that she reinitiated the attack after Sherman had released her; (2) incorrectly conflated Mississippi Code Section 97-3-15(3) and (4), and in doing so, “created precedent” for defendants to claim entitlement to the presumption of reasonable fear, even where the person “against whom ‘defensive force’ was used was a resident of the dwelling”; and (3) improperly invoked plain error to review the exclusion of testimony regarding Sherman’s alleged sexual molestation of Sanders’s daughter.
P8. As mentioned above, we agree with the Court of Appeals’ ultimate disposition. But we address the State’s argument that the Court of Appeals incorrectly implied that Sanders was entitled to a presumption that her fear was reasonable. And we also address Sanders’s argument that her right to confront the witnesses against her was violated by the admission of Sherman’s statements to the first responders. We find no merit in the State’s remaining claims on certiorari.
A. Presumption of Reasonable Fear
P9. We agree with the Court of Appeals that the trial judge erred when he denied Sanders’s requested “no duty to retreat” 2 instruction. But in its discussion of that issue, the Court of Appeals quoted from subsection (3) of Mississippi Code Section 97-3-15, which clearly does not apply in this case. Subsection (3) establishes a presumption of reasonable fear in certain instances of self-defense and states that:
A person who uses defensive force shall be presumed to have reasonably feared imminent death or great bodily harm, or the commission of a felony upon him or another or upon his dwelling . . . if the person against whom the defensive force was used, was in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling . . . or if that person had unlawfully removed or was attempting to unlawfully remove another against the other person’s will from that dwelling . . . or the immediate premises thereof and the person who used defensive force knew or had reason to believe that the forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.
Miss. Code Ann. § 97-3-15(3) (Rev. 2006) (emphasis added).
While both the ‘no duty to retreat’ rule and the presumption recently have been codified by . . . statutes, it has always been the law in this state that one has no duty to retreat from an attack if he is in a place where he has a right to be and is not the initial aggressor or provoker. See McCall v. State, 29 So. 1003 (Miss. 1901) (“Flight is one of the means of avoiding danger which was necessary to be made at common law, but is not required in this state.”); Bang v. State, 60 Miss. 571 (1882); Long v. State, 52 Miss. 23, 34 (1876) (explaining that an individual may stand his ground and still be entitled to claim self-defense “so long as he is in a place where he has a right to be . . . and is no[t] the provoker [of], nor the aggressor in the combat.”).
Newell v. State, 49 So. 3d 66, 74 n.9 (Miss. 2010).
P10. But subsection (3), read in its entirety, clearly establishes that the presumption of reasonable fear does not apply when the person against whom defensive force was used was lawfully present:
This presumption shall not apply if the person against whom defensive force was used has a right to be in or is a lawful resident or owner of the dwelling, vehicle, business, place of employment or the immediate premises thereof or is the lawful resident or owner of the dwelling, vehicle, business, place of employment or the immediate premises thereof . . . .
Id. (emphasis added). We agree with the State that the Court of Appeals’ inclusion of subsection (3) in its analysis could create confusion, and we therefore clarify that a defendant may not claim the presumption of reasonable fear when the person against whom defensive force was used had a right to be in or was a lawful resident or owner of the dwelling.
B. Confrontation Clause
P23. We clarify that a defendant may not claim the presumption of reasonable fear in self-defense cases when the person against whom defensive force was used was a lawful resident of the dwelling. And we find no Sixth Amendment violation in the trial court’s decision to allow the first responders to relay Sherman’s incriminating statements. We affirm the Court of Appeals’ judgment and remand this case to the Hancock County Circuit Court for proceedings consistent with both this and the Court of Appeals’ opinion.
P24. THE JUDGMENT OF THE COURT OF APPEALS IS AFFIRMED. THE JUDGMENT OF THE HANCOCK COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT IS REVERSED AND THE CASE IS REMANDED.
WALLER, C.J., CARLSON AND DICKINSON, P.JJ., RANDOLPH, KITCHENS, CHANDLER AND PIERCE, JJ., CONCUR. KING, J., NOT PARTICIPATING.