The Missouri Supreme Court on Jan. 11 ordered a new trial for a man who fatally shot his stepdaughter’s husband, saying the trial court put too fine a point on the defendant’s self-defense case.
“It is all well and good to analyze the evidence on a moment by moment basis and claim the ability to parse these two individuals’ purposes and beliefs across each indivisible instant of time,” Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson wrote for the unanimous court. “Reality, however, is much different.”
Samuel Whitaker was convicted in Iron County Circuit Court of fatally shooting Carl Lee Streeval while the two fought inside a trailer on Whitaker’s property. Streeval, carrying a gas can, had threatened to burn down Whitaker’s house and the trailer.
As the men fought, Whitaker wounded Streeval in the head with a shotgun blast. Streeval retreated into the trailer and locked himself in the bedroom, leaving the gas can in a hallway. Whitaker took the gas can and was leaving with it when Streeval smashed the door against him. Whitaker again shot Streeval, this time fatally.
Because Whitaker had recovered the gas can at the moment of the fatal shot, Judge Kelly Parker barred a self-defense instruction that would have allowed the jury to find that Whitaker was in imminent fear of the forcible felony of arson. The jury acquitted Whitaker of first-degree murder but found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter and armed criminal action.
The Supreme Court said arson-based instruction should have been allowed. Missouri allows self-defense to protect against a threat of death, serious injury or a forcible felony. Whitaker had been allowed to argue that was defending himself from Streeval’s commission of burglary, based on his allegedly unlawful entry into the trailer to commit a crime.
Wilson, however, noted that both men claimed they owned the trailer, so it was possible that Streeval’s entry into the trailer wasn’t unlawful. Instructing on both arson and burglary, Wilson wrote, would allow the jury to “bypass the ownership conundrum.”
“This entire altercation, starting with the first shot outside the trailer and ending with the fatal shot inside, was both dangerous and dynamic and certainly it lasted far less time than it takes to recount here,” Wilson wrote. “Part of viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the requested instruction means the circuit court must indulge all reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence that support the giving of the instruction.”
The case is State v. Whitaker, SC98856.