State v. Head, No. 99-3071-CR.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
Citation2002 WI 99,255 Wis.2d 194,648 N.W.2d 413
Docket NumberNo. 99-3071-CR.
PartiesSTATE of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Debra Ann HEAD, Defendant-Appellant-Petitioner.
Decision Date11 July 2002

255 Wis.2d 194
2002 WI 99
648 N.W.2d 413

STATE of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
Debra Ann HEAD, Defendant-Appellant-Petitioner

No. 99-3071-CR.

Supreme Court of Wisconsin.

Oral argument October 4, 2001.

Decided July 11, 2002.


255 Wis.2d 204
For the defendant-appellant-petitioner there were briefs by John D. Hyland, Marcus J. Berghahn and
255 Wis.2d 205
Hurley, Burish & Milliken, S.C., Madison, and oral argument by John D. Hyland.

For the plaintiff-respondent the cause was argued by Christopher G. Wren, assistant attorney general, with whom on the brief was James E. Doyle, attorney general.

An amicus curiae brief was filed by Katherine R. Kruse, Walter J. Dickey and the Frank Remington Center, University of Wisconsin Law School, Madison, on behalf of the Frank J. Remington Center.

¶ 1. DAVID T. PROSSER, J.

This is a review of a published decision of the court of appeals1 which affirmed a judgment of the Rock County Circuit Court. The petitioner, Debra Head (Debra), was convicted by a jury of first-degree intentional homicide for shooting and killing her husband, Harold Head (Harold). She claimed that she had acted in self-defense. To support her assertion, Debra attempted to introduce evidence of Harold's alleged threats and acts of violence towards her in the past, as well as her knowledge of Harold's threats and acts of violence towards others. She argued that these incidents explained her mental state at the time of the shooting and justified her theory of self-defense.

¶ 2. After Debra made an offer of proof, Circuit Judge Richard T. Werner denied her motion to introduce most of the proffered evidence, finding that the evidence did not provide a sufficient factual basis to support a self-defense theory. The court ruled that Debra was required to make a threshold showing that, viewed objectively, she had a "reasonable belief that she was preventing or terminating an unlawful interference

255 Wis.2d 206
with her person or actually believed that ... the force used was necessary ... to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to her." The court determined that Debra had not made such a showing and excluded evidence of Harold's abuse of Debra in the past and of her knowledge of Harold's violent acts towards others. The court also denied Debra's request that it instruct the jury as to both: (1) perfect self-defense, which gives the jury a basis to find a defendant not guilty; and (2) imperfect self-defense, which permits the jury to find guilt on the lesser charge of second-degree intentional homicide

¶ 3. The court of appeals affirmed Debra's conviction, and this court accepted her petition for review. At issue in this appeal are the standards for raising perfect self-defense as a complete affirmative defense to a charge of first-degree intentional homicide, and imperfect self-defense (unnecessary defensive force) to mitigate that charge. This case requires us to examine the standards governing the admission of evidence of a victim's violent character and prior acts of violence, and the standards for jury instructions on self-defense.

¶ 4. First, we hold that a defendant seeking a jury instruction on perfect self-defense to a charge of first-degree intentional homicide must satisfy an objective threshold showing that she reasonably believed that she was preventing or terminating an unlawful interference with her person and reasonably believed that the force she used was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.2 A defendant is entitled to an instruction on perfect self-defense when the trial

255 Wis.2d 207
evidence places self-defense in issue. Perfect self-defense is placed in issue when, under a reasonable view of the trial evidence, a jury could conclude that the state has failed to meet its burden to disprove one of the elements of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. We make no judgment whether Debra Head was entitled to an instruction on perfect self-defense in this case. We defer to the circuit court, which will hear the case on remand, to apply the correct standards for a self-defense instruction based upon evidence presented at trial

¶ 5. Second, we hold that a defendant seeking a jury instruction on unnecessary defensive force (imperfect self-defense) to a charge of first-degree intentional homicide is not required to satisfy an objective threshold showing that she was acting under a reasonable belief that she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm or that the force she used was necessary to defend herself. Rather, the defendant must show some evidence that she actually believed that she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and actually believed that the force she used was necessary to defend herself. A defendant is entitled to an instruction on unnecessary defensive force when the trial evidence places this mitigation defense in issue. Unnecessary defensive force is placed in issue when, under a reasonable view of the trial evidence, a jury could conclude that the state has failed to meet its burden to disprove either that the defendant actually believed she was in danger of imminent death or great bodily harm or that she actually believed the force she used was necessary to defend herself, even if both beliefs were unreasonable.

¶ 6. Third, we hold that a defendant who claims self-defense to a charge of first-degree intentional homicide

255 Wis.2d 208
may use evidence of a victim's violent character and past acts of violence to show a satisfactory factual basis that she actually believed she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and actually believed that the force used was necessary to defend herself, even if both beliefs were unreasonable

¶ 7. We conclude in this case that Debra's offer of proof established a sufficient factual basis for a claim of unnecessary defensive force (imperfect self-defense) and that she should have been allowed to present evidence of Harold's violent character and past acts of violence at trial in an effort to mitigate the charge of first-degree intentional homicide. Moreover, she was entitled to a jury instruction on second-degree intentional homicide on the basis of the evidence that was introduced at trial. Because evidence that should have been admitted was excluded and because an instruction that should have been given was denied, we conclude that Debra Head is entitled to a new trial. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and remand this case to the circuit court.

¶ 8. Finally, we conclude that Wis JI—Criminal 1014, the jury instruction involving the mitigation of first-degree intentional homicide to second-degree intentional homicide based on unnecessary defensive force, does not accurately reflect the law as set forth in this opinion. We therefore request that the Wisconsin Criminal Jury Instructions Committee revisit and amend Wis JI—Criminal 1014 and other relevant instructions in accordance with this opinion.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶ 9. Our objective in this opinion is not to determine whether the State adduced sufficient evidence to sustain Debra Head's conviction for first-degree intentional

255 Wis.2d 209
homicide. Our objective is to determine whether the defendant offered a sufficient factual basis for self-defense, so that the court was required to admit some of her proffered evidence at trial and required to permit some or all of her theory of the case to go to the jury. Consequently, for purposes of this appeal, we present the defendant's proffered evidence and trial testimony in the light most favorable to the defendant and acknowledge that this one-sided perspective of events does not represent the full story.

¶ 10. Debra Head was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide for shooting and killing her husband Harold on May 29, 1998, at their home in the Town of Johnstown in Rock County. The Heads had been married for 22 years and had two daughters.

¶ 11. In late January 1998 the Heads' 17-year-old daughter Brenda informed her mother that she was pregnant and that 21-year-old Chad Graves was the father of her unborn child. On Valentine's Day weekend, Debra and Brenda told Harold about the pregnancy, and he became enraged. He went into the bedroom he shared with Debra. He came out with two guns, stormed out of the house, and drove off to look for Graves, squealing his tires in the driveway. Harold threatened to kill Graves if he found him. He returned home later that night with his mother and brother, who had taken away his guns as well as a billy club that Harold kept in his vehicle.

¶ 12. Over the next several months, Harold continued to make threats against Graves, once claiming that if he encountered Graves, "he's dead; they'll pick him up in a body bag." Debra tried to avoid talk of their daughter's pregnancy because the mere mention of Graves' name would set Harold off. "It was like you lit the fuse of a bomb," she said.

255 Wis.2d 210
¶ 13. On the evening of May 28, 1998, Debra and Harold argued about their finances. The argument was not heated.

¶ 14. The next morning, May 29, Debra overslept. Knowing that she would be late for work, she decided to stay home and talk to Harold again about their finances and apologize for not telling him the truth about not paying certain overdue bills. She testified that she had lied to her husband because she was afraid of his reaction. Harold was asleep, lying on his left side, on the half of the bed closest to the bedroom door. When Debra woke Harold by shaking his foot, he rolled over on his back and then to his right side, to face her. She was standing next to the bed, at his feet. Debra asked Harold if he were still upset about the events of the previous night. He said that he was. The two went on to discuss and work out some of the problems with their finances.

¶ 15. Debra then turned the conversation towards Brenda and Graves. This upset Harold, who began yelling that...

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82 practice notes
  • Schmidt v. Foster, No. 17-1727
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • May 29, 2018
    ...evidence of the defense at trial. State v. Schmidt , 344 Wis.2d 336, 824 N.W.2d 839, 843 (Wis. App. 2012), citing State v. Head , 255 Wis.2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413, 439 (2002). The prosecution must then disprove the defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Schmidt , 824 N.W.2d at 843, citing Head , ......
  • State v. Johnson, Appeal No. 2018AP2318-CR
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Wisconsin
    • July 8, 2020
    ...Self-Defense ¶12 "To raise the issue of perfect self-defense, a defendant must meet a reasonable objective threshold." State v. Head , 2002 WI 99, ¶84, 255 Wis. 2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413. Sufficient evidence must show: "(1) a reasonable belief in the existence of an unlawful interference; and ......
  • State v. Stietz, No. 2014AP2701-CR
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • June 13, 2017
    ...regarding the self-defense instruction centers on whether the defense of self-defense is supported by sufficient evidence. State v. Head , 2002 WI 99, ¶113, 255 Wis. 2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413.¶5 On viewing the record in the light most favorable to the defendant, as we must,6 we conclude, contr......
  • State v. O'Brien, Nos. 2012AP1769–CR, 2012AP1770–CR, 2012AP1863–CR.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • July 9, 2014
    ...defense theory, the threshold for admitting such evidence is low, even if the theory itself is “thoroughly discredited.” See State v. Head, 2002 WI 99, ¶ 115, 255 Wis.2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413 (“[I]f, before trial, the defendant proffers ‘some’ evidence to support her defense theory and if tha......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
82 cases
  • Schmidt v. Foster, No. 17-1727
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • May 29, 2018
    ...evidence of the defense at trial. State v. Schmidt , 344 Wis.2d 336, 824 N.W.2d 839, 843 (Wis. App. 2012), citing State v. Head , 255 Wis.2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413, 439 (2002). The prosecution must then disprove the defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Schmidt , 824 N.W.2d at 843, citing Head , ......
  • State v. Johnson, Appeal No. 2018AP2318-CR
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Wisconsin
    • July 8, 2020
    ...Self-Defense ¶12 "To raise the issue of perfect self-defense, a defendant must meet a reasonable objective threshold." State v. Head , 2002 WI 99, ¶84, 255 Wis. 2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413. Sufficient evidence must show: "(1) a reasonable belief in the existence of an unlawful interference; and ......
  • State v. Stietz, No. 2014AP2701-CR
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • June 13, 2017
    ...regarding the self-defense instruction centers on whether the defense of self-defense is supported by sufficient evidence. State v. Head , 2002 WI 99, ¶113, 255 Wis. 2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413.¶5 On viewing the record in the light most favorable to the defendant, as we must,6 we conclude, contr......
  • State v. O'Brien, Nos. 2012AP1769–CR, 2012AP1770–CR, 2012AP1863–CR.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • July 9, 2014
    ...defense theory, the threshold for admitting such evidence is low, even if the theory itself is “thoroughly discredited.” See State v. Head, 2002 WI 99, ¶ 115, 255 Wis.2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413 (“[I]f, before trial, the defendant proffers ‘some’ evidence to support her defense theory and if tha......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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