Jones-Nelson v. State, Supreme Court No. S-17555

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtCARNEY, Justice.
Citation512 P.3d 665
Parties Marquinn JONES-NELSON, Petitioner, v. STATE of Alaska, Respondent.
Docket NumberSupreme Court No. S-17555
Decision Date24 June 2022

512 P.3d 665

Marquinn JONES-NELSON, Petitioner,
v.
STATE of Alaska, Respondent.

Supreme Court No. S-17555

Supreme Court of Alaska.

June 24, 2022


Cynthia Strout, Anchorage, for Petitioner.

Timothy W. Terrell, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Kevin G. Clarkson, Attorney General, Juneau, for Respondent.

Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Carney, and Borghesan, Justices.

OPINION

CARNEY, Justice.

512 P.3d 668

I. INTRODUCTION

A defendant convicted of first-degree murder appealed his conviction to the court of appeals, arguing that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury on the law of self-defense. The court of appeals agreed the instruction was erroneous but concluded that the error was harmless and affirmed the defendant's conviction.

The defendant petitioned us, asking that we reverse the court of appeals’ decision and his conviction because the erroneous instruction relieved the State of its burden to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. We agree. We therefore reverse the decisions of the superior court and court of appeals and vacate the defendant's conviction because the challenged instruction is legally incorrect and impermissibly lightens the prosecution's burden to disprove self-defense.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS1

A. Facts

Marquinn Jones-Nelson shot and killed Devante Jordan in March 2011. Both young men were at a party at the home of an acquaintance. At some point Jordan confronted Jones-Nelson in a bedroom, alleging that Jones-Nelson had spread a rumor that Jordan was a "snitch." Jordan then left the bedroom.

Jones-Nelson later called a friend of Jordan's into the bedroom and asked him to get Jordan. When Jordan returned, he approached Jones-Nelson aggressively; Jordan was significantly larger than Jones-Nelson and had previously knocked him unconscious in a fight. Accounts of what happened next differed. Jones-Nelson and a friend testified at trial that Jordan reached into his waistband for a handgun. Another witness testified that he did not see Jordan reach for a gun.

It is undisputed that Jones-Nelson then pulled out a handgun and shot Jordan repeatedly. He disposed of the gun used in the shooting, asked friends to lie about his whereabouts, and attempted to secure false identity documents to flee the state. He was arrested the next day and charged with first-degree murder as well as other offenses that are not at issue here.

B. Trial

Jones-Nelson gave notice before trial that he would claim self-defense. At the end of the four-week-long trial, the trial court gave the jury three instructions on the law of self-defense. The first two, numbered 30 and 31, were pattern instructions that described the use of nondeadly force and deadly force in self-defense.2 These instructions correctly stated the relevant law.3 The deadly force instruction explained that if a person is justified in using nondeadly force in self-defense, the person can also use deadly force "when the person reasonably believes the use of deadly force is necessary for self-defense."

At the prosecution's request and over Jones-Nelson's objection, the court also gave the following instruction, drafted by the prosecutor:

A basic tenet of the doctrine of self-defense is that [the] use of deadly force is unreasonable ... if non-deadly force is
512 P.3d 669
obviously sufficient to avert the threatened harm. Even in circumstances when a person is permitted to use deadly force in self-defense[,] that person may still not be authorized to employ all-out deadly force because such extreme force is not necessary to avert the danger.[4 ]

Jones-Nelson's attorney argued that the instruction was "dicta from Walker[5 ] and it's from the dissenting opinion in Weston .[6 ] So ... I think it's an inaccurate or incorrect statement of the law. It's not necessary. It's not a pattern instruction ...."

The prosecutor responded, "Counsel hasn't articulated how it's incorrect. It is dicta from Weston but it is a direct quote from ... Walker . It is not an incorrect statement of the law, and it should be given ...."

The trial court decided to give the instruction. "I'm going to give this. ... [A]nd I've given this before. I find that this is a nice, clear statement of the difference between ... deadly and non-deadly force. I find that the ... pattern instructions ... are a little confusing and this one clarifies them."

Neither counsel explicitly discussed the third self-defense instruction in their closing arguments, but both devoted time to discussing self-defense. After explaining to the jury the requirement that a defendant "reasonably believe" deadly force was necessary, the prosecutor argued that the jury had to conclude "that's the level of violence that I am prepared to excuse, forgive, condone, and acquit in the community where I live, that's the standard." He continued by urging the jurors to "decline the invitation to say that the conduct you've heard described in this case is reasonable." Jones-Nelson's attorney then countered the prosecutor's argument, concluding that his client knew "[i]t was either kill or be killed." In rebuttal, the prosecutor argued that the defense was asking the jury to conclude that Jones-Nelson's actions were "reasonable — the level of violence that you would approve of, condone, and vote to acquit ... — in the community where you live." He continued, telling the jurors, "You can't make that finding. You can't make that finding. It's not reasonable ..." because the level of force was not necessary.

The jury rejected Jones-Nelson's self-defense claim and convicted him of first-degree murder.

C. Appeal

Jones-Nelson raised two issues on appeal but raises only one in his petition to us.7 That issue is the self-defense instruction drafted by the prosecutor. Jones-Nelson argued before the court of appeals that the instruction erroneously suggested that the jury evaluate the use of deadly force retrospectively "to determine whether deadly force was in fact objectively necessary , rather than ... whether the defendant's use of deadly force was reasonable under the circumstances known to the defendant at the time ."8

The appeals court first agreed with Jones-Nelson that "a defendant may be justified in using deadly force (even ‘all-out’ deadly force) if, under the circumstances known to the defendant, the defendant reasonably believed that this amount of force was necessary — even if it later turns out that this belief was mistaken, and that lesser force would have sufficed."9 It also "agree[d] with Jones-Nelson that the wording of the challenged instruction failed to unambiguously recite the concept of ‘reasonableness’ that is central to the law of self-defense."10 But the court concluded that when the instruction "is read in conjunction with the other jury instructions on self-defense, and in the context

512 P.3d 670

of the parties’ closing arguments ..., there is little chance that the jurors would have been misled on this issue."11 The court pointed out that neither counsel had referred to the instruction in closing arguments and affirmed Jones-Nelson's conviction.12

In a concurring opinion, Judge Allard commented on "the danger of lifting language from appellate court decisions and then asking jurors to interpret and apply this language without the benefit of its original context."13 Addressing the prosecutor's argument that some of the language in the instruction "was, drawn, essentially verbatim ," from an instruction the court of appeals had upheld in a previous case, she cautioned, "The fact that a jury instruction contains a verbatim quote from one of this Court's decisions does not guarantee that the instruction is an accurate or complete statement of the law."14

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The parties dispute the applicable standard of review. The adequacy of jury instructions is generally a legal question, which is reviewed de novo.15 But if a party fails to preserve the issue for appeal, we review for plain error.16 Jones-Nelson argues that he preserved his argument for appeal, while the State argues that Jones-Nelson failed to preserve his objection by inadequately explaining his grounds for objecting. We review de novo the issue of whether a claim has been preserved for appeal.17 Under the de novo review standard, "we exercise our independent judgment."18 Finally, questions of law involving the interpretation of a statute are reviewed by using a sliding scale approach where "the plainer the language of the statute, the more convincing the contrary legislative history must be."19

IV. DISCUSSION

Jones-Nelson argues that the court of appeals was wrong to conclude that the incorrect jury instruction was harmless. And he argues that the instruction reduced the State's duty to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. The State argues that the jury instruction correctly stated the law and that any imperfections in the jury instruction did not affect...

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1 practice notes
  • Wright v. Dropik, Supreme Court No. S-17769
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • June 24, 2022
    ...the presumption of title "is not to be overcome by surmise or conjecture."43 These rules, in turn, were drawn from the California Supreme 512 P.3d 665 Court's 1895 decision in Woodside v. Hewel .44 This longstanding precedent establishes a special evidentiary presumption when title to real ......
1 cases
  • Wright v. Dropik, Supreme Court No. S-17769
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • June 24, 2022
    ...the presumption of title "is not to be overcome by surmise or conjecture."43 These rules, in turn, were drawn from the California Supreme 512 P.3d 665 Court's 1895 decision in Woodside v. Hewel .44 This longstanding precedent establishes a special evidentiary presumption when title to real ......

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