Tennessee Supreme Court Concludes That A Jury Must Be Instructed On Self-Defense Only When That Defense Has Been Fairly Raised By The Proof

April 30, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court has clarified that a trial court is required to charge a jury on self-defense only when the issue has been fairly raised by the proof at trial.

The defendant, Antonio Benson, was charged with first-degree premeditated murder.  The evidence presented at trial suggested that he and the victim became involved in a physical altercation, during which the unarmed victim punched the defendant and caused his nose to bleed.  In response, the defendant shot the victim five times.     At trial, the defendant argued that the jury should be allowed to consider whether he was lawfully defending himself.  The trial court found that nothing in the proof at trial raised the issue of whether the defendant lawfully used deadly force in defending himself against a punch in the nose by a petite, unarmed woman. The trial court, therefore, refused to charge the jury on self-defense.  The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, concluding that the trial court erred in not allowing the jury to decide whether the defendant lawfully defended himself with the use of deadly force.  The Supreme Court granted the State‚Äôs application for permission to appeal to consider the gatekeeping function of a trial court when assessing whether self-defense has been fairly raised by the proof and to further evaluate the quantum of proof necessary to require a trial court to charge a jury on self-defense.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court held that the trial court, not the jury, must make the threshold determination of whether self-defense has been fairly raised by the proof.  The Court determined that the trial court properly exercised its gatekeeping function in this case and was not required to charge the jury on the issue of self-defense because the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant including all reasonable inferences that could be drawn, did not fairly raise an issue of whether the defendant was lawfully defending himself when he used deadly force.  The Supreme Court reversed the holding of the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstated the judgment of the trial court.

To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Antonio Benson, authored by Justice Roger A. Page, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.