State v. Munroe, 080420 NHSC, 2018-0433

Docket Nº:2018-0433
Opinion Judge:HANTZ MARCONI, J.
Attorney:Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Sean R. Locke, assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the State. Kirsten Wilson Law, PLLC, of Portsmouth (Kirsten B. Wilson on the brief and orally), for the defendant.
Judge Panel:HICKS, BASSETT, and DONOVAN, JJ., concurred.
Case Date:August 04, 2020
Court:Supreme Court of New Hampshire




No. 2018-0433

Supreme Court of New Hampshire, Rockingham

August 4, 2020

Argued: June 3, 2020

Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Sean R. Locke, assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the State.

Kirsten Wilson Law, PLLC, of Portsmouth (Kirsten B. Wilson on the brief and orally), for the defendant.


The defendant, Michael Munroe, appeals his conviction following a jury trial on one count of assault by a prisoner. See RSA 642:9, I (2016). He argues that the Superior Court (Wageling, J.) erred by: (1) striking his notice of self-defense; (2) overruling his hearsay objection to testimony from a medical professional as to the victim's identity; (3) denying him leave to represent himself; (4) failing to allow his trial attorneys to withdraw their representation pursuant to the New Hampshire Rules of Professional Conduct; and (5) trying him in absentia. We reverse and remand for a new trial.


The jury could have found the following facts. In 2017, the defendant was an inmate at the Rockingham County House of Corrections. On May 25, 2017, a fight broke out between the defendant and another inmate, W.V. Corrections Officer Graham, who was assigned to the unit where both men were housed, observed the defendant pulling W.V. down and repeatedly punching him. Graham intervened and was able to separate the two men. Two officers then handcuffed W.V. and "brought him to see medical" because of his injuries. W.V. was ultimately taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a complex facial fracture.

The jury found the defendant guilty. The defendant moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, to which the State objected. The court denied the defendant's motion and later sentenced the defendant. This appeal followed.


We first address the defendant's argument that the trial court erred in striking his pretrial notice of self-defense filed pursuant to New Hampshire Rule of Criminal Procedure 14(b)(2)(A) (Rule 14(b)(2)(A)). Although we ordinarily review a trial court's decision to strike a notice of a defense for an unsustainable exercise of discretion, see State v. Fichera, 153 N.H. 588, 594 (2006), we review the trial court's interpretation of court rules de novo, as with any other issue of law, see Lillie-Putz Trust v. Downeast Energy Corp., 160 N.H. 716, 721-22 (2010); State v. Champagne, 152 N.H. 423, 428 (2005). Thus, because, in this case, our analysis of whether the trial court erred by striking the defendant's notice turns on the proper interpretation of Rule 14(b)(2)(A), our review is de novo. See Petition of N.H. Sec'y of State, 171 N.H. 728, 734 (2019); Champagne, 152 N.H. at 428. When interpreting a procedural rule, as with a rule of evidence or a statute, we will first look to the plain meaning of the words used and will ascribe to them their plain and ordinary meaning where possible. See Lillie-Putz Trust, 160 N.H. at 722. We will not add words to the plain language of a rule. Cf. State v. Polk, 155 N.H. 585, 589 (2007) (construing a statute).


Rule 14(b)(2)(A) governs criminal defendants' general notice obligations in superior court. The rule states: If the defendant intends to rely upon any defense specified in the Criminal Code, the defendant shall within sixty calendar days if the case originated in superior court, or thirty calendar days if the case originated in circuit court-district division, after the entry of a plea of not guilty, or within such further time as the court may order for good cause shown, file a notice of such intention setting forth the grounds [therefor] with the court and the prosecution. If the defendant fails to comply with this rule, the court may exclude any testimony relating to such defense or make such other order as the interest of justice requires.

N.H. R. Crim. P. 14(b)(2)(A). Thus, if the defendant "intends to rely upon any defense specified in the Criminal Code," he must "file a notice of such intention setting forth the grounds therefore." Id. If he does not do so, the court may make such "order as the interest of justice requires." Id.

The Criminal Code specifies two types of defenses: defenses and affirmative defenses. See RSA 626:7, I (2016). Defenses, also referred to as pure defenses, see, e.g., State v. Soucy, 139 N.H. 349, 352 (1995), are those defenses that the State has the burden of disproving beyond a reasonable doubt. See RSA 626:7, I(a). By contrast, affirmative defenses are those defenses that the defendant has the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence. See RSA 626:7, I(b). Conceptually, a "pure defense is a denial of an element of the offense, while an affirmative defense is a defense overriding the element." Soucy, 139 N.H. at 352; see also RSA 625:11, III(c) (2016) (defining element of an offense, in part, as conduct or circumstances that negate a justification).

Both the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as Part I, Article 15 of the New Hampshire Constitution entitle a criminal defendant to a jury determination as to whether there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of all factual elements of the crime charged. State v. Williams, 133 N.H. 631, 633 (1990); see also In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970) ("[T]he Due Process Clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment] protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged."). Because pure defenses are "elements of the crime," State v. Marchand, 164 N.H. 26, 31 (2012), they "must be negated by the State by proof beyond a reasonable doubt and must be submitted to the jury for determination," Soucy, 139 N.H. at 352-53. The State need not disprove pure defenses in every case, however. See RSA 626:7, I(a). Instead, the State is required to disprove a pure defense when evidence relevant to the defense is admitted at trial. See id.

In this case, the defendant argues that the court erred by striking his notice of the defense of self-defense. Under New Hampshire's self-defense statute, a defendant is "justified in using non-deadly force upon another person in order to defend himself . . . from what he reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful, non-deadly force by such other person." RSA 627:4, I (2016); see State v. Pennock, 168 N.H. 294, 307 (2015). Self-defense is a pure defense under New Hampshire law. See RSA 627:1 (2016) ("Conduct which is justifiable under this chapter constitutes a defense to any offense."). Thus, "[w]hen evidence of self-defense is admitted, conduct negating the defense becomes an element of the charged offense." Pennock, 168 N.H. at 307 (quotation omitted); see also Soucy, 139 N.H. at 352-53.

Here, the defendant filed a "Notice of Self Defense and Notice of Competing Harms"1 prior to trial, notifying the court and the prosecution that he "may rely on the defense of self-defense . . . pursuant to [RSA] 627:4." (Bolding, underlining, and capitalization omitted.) The defendant stated, "[a]s grounds for this notice," that he stood accused of felony-level assault by a prisoner. See RSA 642:9, I, IV (2016). He explained that the State "alleged that on May 25, 2017, Mr. Munroe recklessly caused serious bodily injury to [W.V.] by punching him" at a time when the defendant "was being held in official custody." According to the defendant's notice, "[a] disciplinary board hearing was held on May 28, 2017 for [W.V.]," and "[d]uring that hearing, [W.V.] pled guilty to the charge of fighting." The defendant also stated that "[b]oth Mr. Munroe and [W.V.] refused to give statements concerning the fight." Furthermore, the defendant represented that the video of the incident, which was provided by the State in discovery, "does not show the entirety of the alleged fight," thus it was "not clear" from the video "whether there was any physical contact between the two men prior to Mr. Munroe hitting [W.V.]" The defendant further explained that "there is no audio in the video," making it unclear "what is being said between the parties."

The State filed an objection to the defendant's notice, arguing that "[t]he defendant is not entitled to argue self-defense as a matter of law based upon the offer of proof as contained within the Defendant's notice." The State asserted that "the Defendant's notice does not set forth the grounds of his self-defense . . . defense because it does not allege[] how or why the Defendant had to defend himself from any imminent use of force against him." The defendant then filed a supplemental notice arguing that his original notice sufficiently set forth the grounds under Rule 14(b)(2)(A) and that whether there is evidence of self-defense was required to be determined at trial.

The trial court subsequently ruled that the defendant's notice failed to adequately set forth the grounds under Rule 14(b)(2)(A). The court stated that the grounds set forth in the defendant's notice were "insufficient to support" his self-defense claim because he "ha[d] not alleged any facts suggesting that W.V. . . . threatened him with the use of non-deadly force." The trial court differentiated notices of affirmative defenses from notices of pure defenses. The court reasoned that, although our decision in State v. Fichera established that notices of affirmative defenses are not required to identify evidentiary support for the defense noticed, the court could evaluate whether a defendant's notice set forth sufficient evidentiary support for a pure defense under Rule 14(b)(2)(A) because "the State should have sufficient notice of the factual allegations supporting the defenses . . . which it must disprove at trial." The trial...

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