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Defendant can’t tell own story if it involves self-defense

Scott Lauck//November 2, 2020

Defendant can’t tell own story if it involves self-defense

Scott Lauck//November 2, 2020

A split panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District ruled on Oct. 27 that a criminal defendant couldn’t tell his version of events in a deadly robbery without raising a legal defense he couldn’t claim — self-defense.

Chief Judge Cynthia L. Martin, writing for the court, held that although defendant Tyler J. Gates was barred from testifying that the man he shot to death had actually been trying to rob him, “the trial court was not categorically depriving Gates of the opportunity to testify in his defense, and was not categorically depriving Gates of a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.” Judge Edward R. Ardini Jr. concurred in affirming the conviction.

But Judge Alok Ahuja dissented, writing that the trial’s “remarkable and sweeping evidentiary rulings denied Gates his constitutional right to present a meaningful defense.”

“The scope of the trial court’s exclusionary rulings is startling,” Ahuja wrote. He argued that the defendant should get a new trial.

Jeannie M. Willibey, a public defender in Kansas City who represented Gates on appeal, said she was still reviewing the decision but that she planned to ask the court for a rehearing and if necessary a transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court. 

“Gosh, it’s just got to be wrong that you don’t let a defendant get up and say what happened at the time the shot was fired,” she said.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Gates was convicted in Jackson County Circuit Court on felony murder charges stemming from the fatal shooting of Matthew Haylock. Prosecutors alleged that Gates and another man had driven to an Independence mall as part of a plan to rob Haylock of his handgun. After asking to see the weapon, Gates allegedly refused to return it, then shot Haylock as he lunged at him from the backseat, using another gun that he’d borrowed from the accomplice.

Gates told a different tale: He alleged that he and his accomplice had called off the planned robbery, but when they arrived at the mall, Haylock put the gun in Gates’ face and tried to rob him. Gates alleges that he shot Haylock to save himself.

Gates was charged with felony murder because Haylock’s death allegedly occurred as a result of Gates’ attempt at robbery. Under longstanding Missouri precedent, self-defense cannot be raised in a felony murder case because the defendant isn’t charged with unlawfully using force; he is charged with committing a felony that results in the death of a person, which can involve non-violent crimes and can apply even if the defendant didn’t directly cause or intend the death.

In addition, a 2007 state law clarified that self-defense is an absolute defense to criminal prosecution — but that it cannot be claimed by anyone who commits or tries to commit a forcible felony, including robbery. Interpreting that statute, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2018 in State v. Oates that a man who killed two people during the course of a drug deal — that is, a non-forcible felony — still was precluded from claiming self-defense when charged with felony murder.

Based on that body of law, Judge Jack R. Grate barred any mention of “anything commonsensically that has something to do with self-defense.” During trial, the jury was ordered to disregard Gates’ testimony that he was “nervous” in the car with the victim, and the judge sustained the prosecutor’s objection when Gates said he “happened to look back and see a gun in my face.” 

Gates was specifically forbidden from saying that Haylock tried to rob him or that that he shot Haylock in a struggle for the gun. However, Martin said that Gates still was able to get portions of his story before the jury, including his contention that he had no intention of robbing the victim and that Haylock had pointed a gun at him.

None of the barred testimony, she wrote, “evidently, obviously, or clearly make it more or less probable that Gates robbed or was attempting to rob the Victim.” 

“The scenarios are not mutually exclusive,” she wrote. “One scenario, if believed, does not disprove the other. Gates could have been robbing or attempting to rob the Victim at the same time the Victim was attempting to rob Gates.”

Ahuja, however, said Gates’ reason for shooting Haylock was an essential element of the robbery offense on which the felony murder charge hinged. He agreed that Gates couldn’t raise self-defense to legally absolve himself of the felony murder charge. 

“But this does not mean that Gates was prohibited from presenting evidence that he had not committed the underlying felony, and could therefore not be guilty of felony murder, because he was simply protecting himself against a violent felony attempted by Haylock,” Ahuja wrote.

Martin’s opinion held that Gates’ trial counsel failed to preserve such an argument. Ahuja called that a “hyper-technical, artificially compartmentalized view of the record” and said it was clear the trial lawyer was trying to rebut the prosecution’s claim that a robbery had occurred, not to legally justify Gates’ actions.

The case is State v. Gates, WD83104. 

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