Lalchan v. United States, 19-CF-914

Citation19-CF-914
Case DateSeptember 15, 2022
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

Dianna Y. Lalchan, Appellant,
v.

United States, Appellee.

No. 19-CF-914

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

September 15, 2022


Argued June 1, 2022

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF1-4987-13) (Hon. Ronna L. Beck, Trial Judge)

Daniel Gonen, Public Defender Service, with whom Samia Fam and Mikel-Meredith Weidman, Public Defender Service, were on the brief, for appellant.

Katherine M. Kelly, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Matthew M. Graves, United States Attorney, and Chrisellen R. Kolb, Nicholas P. Coleman, and Cynthia G. Wright, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

Cindene Pezzell, William C. Perdue, and Sean A. Mirski were on the brief for Organizations Against Domestic Violence, amicus curiae in support of appellant.

Before Easterly, McLeese, and Howard, Associate Judges.

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McLeese, Associate Judge:

Appellant Dianna Y. Lalchan challenges her convictions for voluntary manslaughter while armed and possession of a firearm during a crime of violence. We vacate and remand.

I. Factual Background

Certain basic facts were undisputed at trial. Ms. Lalchan shot and killed her husband, Christopher Lalchan. Ms. Lalchan fired three bullets, one of which hit a wall and one of which hit the floor. When the final bullet was fired, Mr. Lalchan was facing Ms. Lalchan and moving forward. That bullet, which was fatal, hit Mr. Lalchan in the back of the head. Mr. Lalchan was near to the floor when he was struck by that bullet. Ms. Lalchan was some distance away from Mr. Lalchan at the time of the fatal shot.

The dispute at trial was whether Ms. Lalchan acted with premeditated and deliberate malice or instead acted either in lawful self-defense or in good-faith but unreasonable self-defense. The United States argued that Ms. Lalchan murdered Mr. Lalchan, mainly for financial and personal reasons surrounding their potential divorce. In support of that argument, the United States relied on the fact that Mr. Lalchan had been shot in the back of the head. The United States also elicited

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evidence that Ms. Lalchan was the breadwinner in the relationship and was worried about having to pay Mr. Lalchan alimony and splitting their property after their divorce. The United States also elicited evidence that Ms. Lalchan had realized during the marriage that she was attracted to women, and she was concerned that Mr. Lalchan would tell Ms. Lalchan's conservative family about that.

Ms. Lalchan testified that she shot Mr. Lalchan because she feared for her life. In support of that testimony, Ms. Lalchan introduced the following evidence. Early in their relationship, Mr. Lalchan became angry and smashed items such as Ms. Lalchan's laptop. Mr. Lalchan's violent behavior later escalated to shoving and slapping. The abuse culminated in Mr. Lalchan strangling Ms. Lalchan on several occasions.

The first two times Mr. Lalchan strangled Ms. Lalchan occurred during arguments. Before he strangled her, Mr. Lalchan's demeanor would suddenly change: he became quiet, shut down emotionally, and focused intently on stopping himself from exploding. Ms. Lalchan described that change as "like the Hulk" (the Marvel Comics character) when he is trying to hold himself back. In two of the incidents, Mr. Lalchan strangled Ms. Lalchan until she passed out.

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Mr. Lalchan strangled Ms. Lalchan a third time about two months before the shooting. In that incident, Mr. Lalchan lifted Ms. Lalchan by the neck with one hand while holding a gun with the other. Mr. Lalchan threw Ms. Lalchan into a wall and hit her with the gun. After that incident, Ms. Lalchan began looking into getting a divorce.

On the night of the shooting, the Lalchans were arguing about the possibility of divorce. Mr. Lalchan threw a bicycle, punched a television, grabbed his gun, and threatened to commit suicide. Ms. Lalchan got the gun and put it down, but the argument continued. Mr. Lalchan raised a mop handle over his head, threatening Ms. Lalchan with it. Ms. Lalchan grabbed the mop handle, and the two tussled over it. Eventually, Ms. Lalchan let Mr. Lalchan know that "this was it" and that he would not have any more chances. Mr. Lalchan said, "Do I need to shut you up?" He then shut down like he had before and came at Ms. Lalchan. Fearing that Mr. Lalchan might kill her, Ms. Lalchan grabbed the gun and shot Mr. Lalchan.

Ms. Lalchan introduced evidence that she had told others about Mr. Lalchan's physical abuse. She also introduced evidence, including photographs, of injuries that she testified were caused by the abuse.

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Dr. Mary Ann Dutton, a clinical psychologist specializing in domestic violence, testified as a defense expert. In brief, she testified as follows. Dr. Dutton focused her testimony more specifically on violence between intimate partners. She testified that "Battered Woman Syndrome" is a legal term, not a diagnosis of a psychological disorder. She also discussed a number of common misconceptions that people have about women who have been battered, including that such women are usually unemployed, meek, and financially dependent.

Dr. Dutton testified that intimate-partner violence commonly escalates over time. Battered women often do not leave or report abuse, because they are embarrassed, fear that such steps might make the abuse worse, or hope that things will improve. Battered women who try to leave the relationship are at particularly high risk, facing a risk of abuse approximately four times greater than that faced by women who remain in the relationship. A woman who has previously been strangled is seven times more likely to be killed than a woman who has not previously been strangled.

Dr. Dutton further testified that people who have suffered intimate-partner violence learn to identify cues indicating that violence is about to occur, such as a look or a tone of voice. Over time, such cues can become all that is needed to put

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people who have suffered life-threatening abuse in fear for their lives. Such cues can cause an automatic response leading the person to fight back or flee.

The jury acquitted Ms. Lalchan of first-degree murder and second-degree murder but found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter while armed and possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.

II. Denial of the Requested Instruction

Ms. Lalchan argues that the trial court committed reversible error by declining to instruct the jury that it could consider the effects of battery in assessing whether Ms. Lalchan's perception of danger was objectively reasonable. We agree.

A. Procedural Background

Ms. Lalchan asked the trial court to instruct the jury that, in determining whether Ms. Lalchan acted in lawful self-defense, the jury should consider whether Ms. Lalchan acted as a "reasonable woman with a history of trauma and the effects of battery." The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the evidence that Ms. Lalchan suffered effects from prior battery could be considered in determining

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whether Ms. Lalchan subjectively perceived danger but had no bearing on whether Ms. Lalchan's perception was objectively reasonable. In the trial court's view, permitting such evidence to be considered on the issue of objective reasonableness would be contrary to this jurisdiction's rejection of the defense of "diminished capacity." E.g., Bethea v. United States, 365 A.2d 64, 83-92 (D.C. 1976).

B. Standard of Review

"[W]e review de novo whether challenged jury instructions adequately state the law." Fleming v. United States, 224 A.3d 213, 219 (D.C. 2020) (en banc). The "refusal to grant a request for a particular instruction is not a ground for reversal if the court's charge, considered as a whole, fairly and accurately states the applicable law." Fearwell v. United States, 886 A.2d 95, 101 (D.C. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). "[A] special instruction is warranted when there is evidence of special facts sustaining a rational defensive theory." Id. at 100 (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted).

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C. Analysis of the Trial Court's Ruling

As we have previously noted, the trial court concluded that evidence of the effects of battery was not admissible to show that Ms. Lalchan's perception of danger was objectively reasonable. The United States does not defend that ruling as correct. We conclude that the trial court's ruling was incorrect.

Deadly force may lawfully be used in self-defense only if the defendant "actually believe[s] and reasonably believe[s] that [the defendant was] in imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm." Dawkins v. United States, 189 A.3d 223, 232 (D.C. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted). The "right of self-defense, and especially the degree of force [that a person] is permitted to use to prevent bodily harm, is premised substantially on the [person's] own reasonable perceptions of what is happening." Fersner v. United States, 482 A.2d 387, 391 (D.C. 1984). Such perceptions may include "an enhanced sense of peril based on personal knowledge that the attacker has committed prior acts of violence." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). We have therefore "recognized the relevance of expert testimony relating to battered woman's syndrome . . . to establish the reasonableness of a complainant's fear in a case where the complainant claims self-defense to a charge of violence against [the complainant's] abuser." Earl v. United States, 932 A.2d 1122, 1128 (D.C. 2007)

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(internal quotation marks omitted). We see no basis for a different conclusion where, as in the present case, a defendant is relying on such evidence in support of a claim of self-defense. See Parker v. United States, 155 A.3d 835, 852 (D.C. 2017) (Ferren, J., concurring)...

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