We are excited to announce that justice has prevailed and a Maple Grove woman has had her murder conviction reversed due in large part to her trust in Eric Doolittle at Appelman Law Firm and Caitlinrose Fisher and Matthew Forsgren at Forsgren Fisher.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals handed down the ruling yesterday after hearing evidence from both sides. While we’ll get to the nuts and bolts of the case itself in a bit, the appeal focused on how the jurors were given improper instructions after they asked for clarification about the definition of the word “imminent.”
In their ruling, the appellate court stated that the Hennepin County District Court’s jury instructions “materially misstated the law of self-defense by defining ‘imminent’ as ‘immediately’ and by failing to tailor the instruction to the unique circumstances of the case.”
The appeal reversed the second-degree murder conviction of 32-year-old Stephanie Clark. In that case, the jury heard testimony of how Clark was repeatedly verbally and physically abused by Don’Juan Butler. Clark testified that the abuse came to a head on March 5, 2020. After being bring repeatedly hit and punched in the face, Clark testified that Butler held a loaded gun to her head and later said “Wait for tonight. Wait for [your son] to go to bed. I’m going to break your ribs.”
Clark stated that she was afraid that Butler was going to beat her to death, so she picked up a nearby firearm and shot Butler. Butler retreated to the bedroom where Clark picked up a second firearm and shot him again. Butler later died as a result of his injuries.
The case ultimately centered around the four-part test that the Minnesota Supreme Court had previously established to determine if a person is justified in using deadly force. Each of the following four elements must exist in order for deadly force to be used:
1. The absence of aggression or provocation on the part of the
2. The defendant’s actual and honest belief that he
or she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm;
3. The existence of reasonable grounds for that belief; and
4. The absence of a reasonable possibility of retreat to avoid
During deliberations, the jury sent a note to the district court asking “What is the [legal] definition [of the term] imminent?” After conferring with counsel and over Clark’s objections, the district court instructed the jury “To fear imminent great bodily harm or death means that the person must fear that such harm will occur immediately.” Using that definition of imminent, Clark was ultimately found guilty, but that was not the end of the story.
Upon appeal, the appellate court sided with defense attorney Eric Doolittle and the team at Appelman Law Firm. They wrote that the district court used the definition of “imminently” as it is applied in a heat-of-passion manslaughter case as opposed the individual nature each self-defense case would require the word be applied. Judge Roger Klaphake wrote the opinion for the appellate court, stating:
The district court’s jury instruction seemingly conflated the elements of heat-of-passion manslaughter with the justifiable-taking-of-life defense. The district court’s supplemental instruction relied on the definition of heat of passion and the emotion that is required to reduce a murder to manslaughter, as opposed to whether an actor reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary.
Judge Klaphake concluded the opinion by writing:
“Here, Clark testified about D.B.’s violent behavior. The jury, if properly instructed, may have determined that Clark’s use of force was reasonable in light of these circumstances. However, the district court’s supplemental instruction, which was given at a critical stage of the jury deliberations, placed a thumb on the scale for the prosecution. We therefore determine that the district court’s supplemental jury instruction was both erroneous and was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, we reverse Clark’s conviction.”
Eric Doolittle Comments
Eric Doolittle weighed in with his thoughts on the case and the appeal after the appellate court handed down the decision.
“This is about a survivor of horrific domestic abuse who did what she did so she and her son would survive. The issue is jury instructions, and the judge not tailoring those instructions to the unique set of circumstances. Jury instructions must be tailored to the unique facts of each case.
In this case that means taking into account the fear and perceptions of a person subjected to the type of physical, mental and emotional abuse that Ms. Clark suffered. It means understanding and applying the dynamics of what it means to be a battered woman. By taking a rigid and robotic stance, i.e. Imminent means “immediate,” he did in fact place his thumb upon the scale of justice.
If Ms. Clark had waited for Butler to pick up one of the five loaded guns within his reach, she would be dead and it is likely her young son would be as well.”
Congrats to Ms. Clark on a deserved appeal win, and another big thanks to the team at Forsgren Fisher who teamed up with Eric and Appelman Law Firm to secure the victory through appeal.