Tennessee Supreme Court Gives Self-Defense Question to Judges, Not JuriesThe Tennessee Supreme Court answered a question recently self-defense instructions to a jury: Does the jury have an automatic right to hear the issue of self-defense, or can the judge assess whether the defendant fairly raised the issue of self-defense – before instructing the jury on self-defense? In other words, does the defendant have to meet a minimum standard of proof before the jury can hear the issue of self-defense?

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the trial court judge can exercise an initial “gatekeeping function” – i.e., the judge can decide if a minimum standard of proof was met.

The case, State v. Antonio Benson, involved a man charged with first-degree murder. At trial, there was evidence that the victim, “a petite, unarmed woman,” punched the defendant hard enough that the defendant’s nose bled. The defendant’s response wasn’t to punch back. Instead, the defendant “shot the victim five times,” killing the victim.

The defense argued that the trial judge should instruct the jury to consider whether the defendant acted in self-defense. The trial court judge found that no evidence was presented at trial to justify the use of deadly force in response to a bloody nose caused by the victim. The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

The Tennessee Supreme Court held that the trial court was correct to make a threshold determination about whether the defense properly raised the issue of self-defense. The Supreme Court validated the trial court’s gatekeeping function, and the Defendant’s conviction for first-degree, premeditated murder was upheld.

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