Self-Defense and Imminent Threats

by | Jul 25, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On June 17, 2021, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Hudson County case of State v. Kephine Oguta. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4 concerned the applicability of a self-defense charge to the use of a knife to repel an attack.

Judge Gilson wrote for the Court in relevant part: In short, these cases teach that self-defense is a justification to a charge of violating N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(d) in extraordinary circumstances. Those “extraordinary circumstances” include “those  rare and momentary circumstances in which a person makes spontaneous use of a weapon to repel immediate danger.”

Defendant testified that he usually carried his pocketknife because he used it when working to cut up boxes. He also claimed that he had the knife on him on the night of November 13, 2013 because he had intended to go to work before getting the call from his former girlfriend. Most importantly, defendant testified that he was attacked by Mitchell and Moore and he spontaneously pulled out the knife in self-defense. Given that testimony, the judge should have instructed the jury that self-defense could be a justification to the charge of unlawful possession of a weapon if the jury found facts supporting self-defense.

The failure to give that instruction, moreover, was capable of producing an unjust result in this matter. The jury had been properly instructed that self-defense was applicable to the charges of aggravated assault and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. By not giving that same instruction in connection with the charge of unlawful possession of a weapon, the jury could have reasonably concluded that self-defense was not relevant.

Indeed, the jury’s acquittal on the charges of aggravated assault and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose suggests that the jury accepted the self-defense claim. There was really no dispute that an altercation took place and that Mitchell had been stabbed. The critical question in this case was whether defendant acted in self-defense.

Under defendant’s version of events, he would not have possessed the knife for a manifestly inappropriate purpose. Accordingly, we are convinced that the error of not giving the self-defense instruction in connection with the charge of unlawful possession of a weapon was sufficient to raise reasonable doubt as to whether it led the jury to a verdict it otherwise might not have reached. Consequently, we vacate the conviction and remand. We also recommend that the Committee on Model Jury Instructions consider adding a model charge on when an instruction of self-defense should be given in connection with a charge of unlawful possession of a weapon in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(d). Given the reversal of his conviction, defendant’s argument concerning his sentence is moot. Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.

The Appellate Division was left to surmise that the trial jury accepted a self-defense cliam regarding the aggravated assault and other weapons charge. This is because jury deliberations occur in secret in order to encourage the free exchange of ideas among jurors.