State v. Anthony, 2020-Ohio-861 (OH Ct. App. 11th 2020)
Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eleventh Appellate District, Ashtabula County
March 9, 2020, Decided
This case involves two long-term across-the-street neighbors with no prior history of hostility between them. On the night in question the Victim observed the Defendant mowing his lawn at 10PM in the evening. The Victim walked across the street to talk with the Defendant. As he approached, the Defendant got off his riding mower, came towards the Victim, and knocked the Victim to the ground.
The Defendant would testify at trial that he’d just worked a 15-hour day and was leaving on a trip the following morning, and that was why he was mowing his lawn that late in the evening. He said he was alarmed when he realized someone was approaching him in the darkness. He claimed he believed the person approaching had a knife in his hand. He also believed he had a right to defend his property from what he perceived as an aggressor in the darkness.
The Defendant would be charged with simple assault (what most jurisdictions would call a “simple battery.”)
Having been charged with simple assault on the Victim, the Defendant raises the legal defense of self-defense. This was a bench trial, in which the judge plays the role of both judge and finder of fact—so there is no jury.
One benefit of bench trials four our purposes is that although a jury rarely explains how they arrive at a verdict, and are probably not to be believed on the rare occasions that they do provide an explanation, bench trials often include an explanation from the trial judge about how he arrived at his verdict.
The self-defense analysis here is straightforward, simply applying the five elements of a self-defense claim: Innocence, Imminence, Proportionality, Avoidance (OH is a duty to retreat state), and Reasonableness.
The analysis is even simpler than those five elements suggest, because it really just comes down to whether the trial judge believes that the Defendant reasonably perceived an imminent physical threat, to which he responded with defensive force.
In this case the trial judge clearly didn’t believe the Defendant, because he found the Defendant guilty of charged of assault.
The Defendant appeals his conviction.
The Defendant’s basis of appeal is straightforward—that no reasonable person could have found other than self-defense based on the facts of his case. Therefore the fact that the trial judge failed to find self-defense means that the trial judge was unreasonable, and his verdict should be reversed as a result.
If that doesn’t sound like much of a winning argument, you’d be quite right.
The appellate court fails to find anything unreasonable about the trial judge’s perception of the evidence presented in court.
The court of appeals affirms the Defendant’s conviction.
So, here in the Notes/Comments section is where we can get into some interesting facets of this case.
This is case is unusual on a number of fronts. First, it involves a simple assault, rather than a deadly force aggravated assault or a manslaughter or murder charge. It’s not common for simple assault convictions to end up in the appellate courts.
Second, this case highlights a particular caution one must keep in mind in reading appellate court decisions—that appellate court decisions are applying, in those decisions, the law that existed at the time the underlying offense took place. They are not necessarily applying the law as it currently exists. That means the law your reading in an appellate decision might be law that would not be applied if the same facts were to occur today.
The offense that’s the basis for an appeal might have taken place years ago, and the current law in place when the decision is handed down might be quite different than the law as it existed years prior when the offense took place. Nevertheless, the decision will reflect that old law, the law relevant to the offense, and not current law.
In this case the Defendant claimed self-defense to justify his assault of the Victim. The appellate court notes that under Ohio law the burden is on the Defendant to prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence (majority of the evidence). This is the correct law as it applies to this Defendant for this offense—it is not, however, current law in Ohio.
Effective March 28, 2019 Ohio joined the other 49 states in placing the burden of proof on self-defense on the state, rather than the defendant, to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt, not prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence. Reading this decision, however, you’d never know that.
Until the Ohio appellate courts start hearing self-defense appeals involving events that took place on or after March 28, 2019, Ohio case law will continue to reflect the older burden of proof on self-defense rather than the current burden of proof.
Another interesting facet of this decision is that it defines Ohio self-defense law as consisting of just three elements. As you probably know, Law of Self Defense teaches that the legal defense of self-defense consists of five elements: Innocence, Imminence, Proportionality, Avoidance, and Reasonableness. So how can Ohio claim to only have three elements?
This confusion is the result of the Ohio courts combining what are actually several distinct legal elements into one category, and pretending the these multiple elements are a single element.
For example, the second of the “three elements” of self-defense cited by this appellate court reads:
(2) the defendant had a bona fide belief that [he] was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that [his] only means of escape was the use of force
An informed reading of that “single element,” however will recognize that it actually consists of several distinct elements and sub-elements.
For example, the language on “a bona fide belief” is a reference to subjective reasonableness, which is one half of the element of Reasonableness (the other half is objective reasonableness).
The mention of “imminent” is a reference to the distinct self-defense law element of Imminence, as we teach the five elements of self-defense law.
The mention of “death or great bodily harm” is a reference to the intensity of the force involved, which aligns to the element of Proportionality.
The mention of “only means of escape was the use of force” is a reference to the issue of retreat, which aligns to the element of Avoidance.
This conflation of numerous distinct elements into a single category only complicates legal analysis and fosters sloppy legal reasoning and understanding. If this OH appellate court were to argue that a Defendant lost self-defense because he violated what this court refers to as element (2) of self-defense, we’d have no way of knowing if the actual defect in the self-defense claim was a failure of Reasonableness, of Imminence, of Proportionality, of Avoidance, or some combination of these distinct elements.
And keep in mind, this decision wasn’t just written by a trial court judge, but by a panel of three appellate judges, each of whom are in theory supposed to be superior in legal knowledge and reasoning to a mere trial court judge.
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. So, how can this sloppiness happen?
The simple truth is that most lawyers aren’t taught self-defense law in a rigorous way, and most judges are pulled from the ranks of lawyers, so they don’t know self-defense law in a rigorous way, either. Stick to the five elements of self-defense and you’ll have the cleanest and most precise understanding of the requirements of a legal defense of self-defense.
CASE NO. 2019-A-0064
2020-Ohio-861 | 2020 Ohio App. LEXIS 791
STATE OF OHIO, Plaintiff-Appellee, – vs – EUGENE C. ANTHONY, Defendant-Appellant.
For Plaintiff-Appellee: Cecilia M. Cooper, Ashtabula County Prosecutor, and Shelley M. Pratt, Assistant Prosecutor, Ashtabula County Prosecutor’s Office, Jefferson, Ohio.
For Defendant-Appellant: Katherine S. Riedel, Law Offices of Katherine S. Riedel, Jefferson Commercial Park, Jefferson, Ohio.
Judges: THOMAS R. WRIGHT, J. CYNTHIA WESTCOTT RICE, J., MATT LYNCH, J., concur.
Opinion by: THOMAS R. WRIGHT
THOMAS R. WRIGHT, J.
Appellant, Eugene Anthony, was convicted of assault after a bench trial. He appeals arguing his conviction is against the manifest weight of the evidence. We affirm.
Anthony’s sole assigned error alleges:
“The trial court erred in finding appellant guilty of assault when the evidence established the affirmative defense of self-defense.”
Anthony submits that he should not have been found guilty because the evidence showed he was acting in self-defense. We disagree.
“Self-defense is an affirmative defense that requires a defendant to prove three elements by a preponderance of the evidence: ‘(1) the defendant was not at fault in creating the violent situation, (2) the defendant had a bona fide belief that [he] was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that [his] only means of escape was the use of force, and (3) that the defendant did not violate any duty to retreat or avoid the danger.’ State v. Thomas (1997), 77 Ohio St.3d 323, 326, 1997- Ohio 269, 673 N.E.2d 1339; R.C. 2901.05.” State v. Goff, 128 Ohio St.3d 169, 2010-Ohio-6317, 942 N.E.2d 1075, ¶ 36.
If proven, self-defense relieves a defendant of criminal liability for the force that he used. State v. Kozlosky, 195 Ohio App.3d 343, 2011-Ohio-4814, 959 N.E.2d 1097, ¶22. The manifest-weight standard is the proper standard of review when reviewing a claim that evidence supports self-defense because a self-defense argument does not seek to negate an element of the offense charged but seeks to relieve the defendant from culpability. Cleveland v. Williams, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 81369, 2003-Ohio-31, ¶ 10, citing State v. Martin, 21 Ohio St.3d 91, 21 Ohio B. 386, 488 N.E.2d 166 (1986).
While a court of appeals may determine a conviction is sustained by sufficient evidence, it may nevertheless conclude that the judgment is against the weight of the evidence. State v. Thompkins, 78 Ohio St.3d 380, 1997-Ohio-52, 678 N.E.2d 541 (1997).
“Weight of the evidence concerns ‘the inclination of the greater amount of credible evidence, offered in a trial, to support one side of the issue rather than the other. It indicates clearly to the jury that the party having the burden of proof will be entitled to their verdict, if, on weighing the evidence in their minds, they shall find the greater amount of credible evidence sustains the issue which is to be established before them. Weight is not a question of mathematics but depends on its effect in inducing belief.’ (Emphasis added.) Black’s, supra, at 1594.
“When a court of appeals reverses a judgment of a trial court on the basis that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the appellate court sits as a ‘”thirteenth juror”‘ and disagrees with the factfinder’s resolution of the conflicting testimony. [Tibbs v. Florida (1982), 457 U.S. 31, 42, 102 S. Ct. 2211, 72 L. Ed. 2d 652]. See, also, State v. Martin (1983), 20 Ohio App.3d 172, 175, 20 OBR 215, 219, 485 N.E.2d 717, 720-721 (‘The court, reviewing the entire record, weighs the evidence and all reasonable inferences, considers the credibility of witnesses and determines whether in resolving conflicts in the evidence, the [factfinder] clearly lost its way and created such a manifest miscarriage of justice that the conviction must be reversed and a new trial ordered. The discretionary power to grant a new trial should be exercised only in the exceptional case in which the evidence weighs heavily against the conviction.’).” State v. Thompkins, 78 Ohio St.3d 380, 387, 1997-Ohio-52, 678 N.E.2d 541 (1997).
R.C. 2903.13(A), assault, provides: “No person shall knowingly cause or attempt to cause physical harm to another * * *.”
In May of 2018, Anthony’s neighbor, Martin Patton, heard someone mowing their lawn after 10 p.m. So, Patton, while on his front porch, shined a high-powered flashlight and confirmed it was Anthony mowing his lawn across the street. Patton then walked across the street toward Anthony’s yard to talk with him. The two knew one another as longtime neighbors and did not have a troubled past. They have played frisbee golf together, and Patton’s daughter had mowed Anthony’s grass on one occasion.
It was raining out, so after Patton crossed the street, he was looking at the ground to prevent himself from slipping when Anthony got off his mower, came toward Patton, and shoved him to the ground. Patton landed on his back. He recalls being knocked out for a moment, and when he came to, Anthony was yelling and swearing at him and complaining that Patton was trespassing. Patton said he had pain in his head and neck and was wet and covered in mud.
Patton returned to his home and called the police. Ashtabula County Sherriff’s Deputy Patrick Evans and Sergeant Bryan Rose responded and spoke with Patton. Evans testified that Patton had mud on his backside. Evans also recalls Patton complaining of head and neck pain but said he refused emergency medical treatment. Evans does not recall Patton telling him that he lost consciousness from the fall and could not determine where in the yard Patton had fallen. Evans observed that the lawn was recently mowed.
In order to speak with Anthony, the officers repeatedly beat on Anthony’s door, but no one answered. The officers also knocked on Anthony’s windows with no response.
Anthony testified on his own behalf and explained that he worked a 15-hour day and was heading out of town very early the next morning. So, he had to get his lawn mowed even though it was late. Anthony recalls someone approaching him in the dark with something shiny in their hand. He said he thought the person had a knife. Thus, Anthony jumped off his mower because he felt threatened and pushed the person. He told them to leave because they were trespassing.
Anthony repeatedly states during his testimony that he was defending himself since the other person was on his property. Anthony testified that he then went into his house and passed out asleep until the next day. He denies hearing police banging on his door or windows.
On cross-examination, Anthony concedes that just before this altercation he saw someone “spotlighting” him from Patton’s porch. Anthony said he thought they were probably upset with him for the late-night mowing. Notwithstanding, Anthony denied knowing the trespasser in his yard was Patton. Anthony claims this person was charging at him and that Anthony panicked. He denies that Patton had a flashlight when he approached him and instead recalls Patton only holding a cigarette and a zippo lighter.
In rejecting Anthony’s self-defense argument, the trial court finds his testimony incredible, stating in part that Anthony had worked more than 15 hours that day, was tired, and did not believe that cutting the lawn after 10 p.m. would raise any ire from his neighbors. The court continued:
“[Anthony] also testified that he saw a flashlight from across the street and assumed at that point that it was his neighbor, and * * * when the individual approached him, * * * he had a reason to feel that he was in harm’s way.
“Well, the Court finds that that is not believable and that he knew it was his neighbor. He wanted to get his lawn cut, and, unfortunately for him, being in the tired mood that he was in and under pressure, * * * – – he lost his temper and put his hands on his neighbor, pushed him down.
“[Anthony’s] assertion that he went right back in the house and was so exhausted and fell asleep after an event like this, with two deputies approaching the house, one of them testifying that he banged on the door and that [Anthony] was just dead asleep * * *, is not believable. I believe he was avoiding contact with law enforcement.”
Thus, the trial court rejected his self-defense claim based on the first two self-defense prongs and did not address the third. As for the first, in finding that Anthony lost his temper because he was tired, the court rejected the predicate for the first prong, i.e., that Anthony was not at fault in creating the violent situation. And in finding that Anthony knew it was his neighbor that was approaching him that night in the rain, the court also rejected the second prong for self-defense, i.e., that Anthony had a bona fide belief that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that his only means of escape was the use of force.
Consistent with the court’s analysis, Anthony’s claim that he was in fear of imminent danger is dubious considering his admission that only moments earlier, he saw someone shining a flashlight toward him from Patton’s porch. Further, there was nothing evidencing that the two men had a troubled past with one another warranting Anthony’s claim of being in fear for his safety.
Thus, we do not find that the court clearly lost its way or that this is an exceptional case in which the evidence weighs heavily against the conviction. Accordingly, Anthony’s sole assigned error lacks merit.
The trial court’s decision is affirmed.
CYNTHIA WESTCOTT RICE, J.,
MATT LYNCH, J.,