Sustained Outrage

Supreme Court sets new precedents in domestic violence

It was big news last week when the state Supreme Court reversed and vacated Tonya Harden’s 2007 murder conviction. Harden, you will recall, killed her husband, Danuel Harden, with a shotgun he had used to beat and threaten her during what Justice Menis Ketchum described as a “night of domestic terror.”

Tonya Harden(That’s Harden’s booking photo, from September 2004, on the right. Her two black eyes are obvious, but the puncture wound to her right forearm, bruising to her chest and arms and her fractured nose aren’t visible.)

By a 4-1 vote, with Chief Justice Brent Benjamin dissenting, the justices ruled that the physical and sexual assaults by Harden’s husband and his threats to kill her and their children informed her state of mind and were relevant to her claim of self-defense.

As Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Associated Press’ Tim Huber have pointed out here and here, the 44-page opinion sets some new precedents in West Virginia law. It’s a pretty big deal when the Supreme Court issues new precedent, so the new syllabus points are worth repeating here:

–Where a defendant has asserted a plea of self-defense, evidence showing that the decedent had previously abused or threatened the life of the defendant is relevant evidence of the defendant’s state of mind at the time deadly force was used. In determining whether the circumstances formed a reasonable basis for the defendant to believe that he or she was at imminent risk of serious bodily injury or death at the hands of the decedent, the inquiry is two-fold. First, the defendant’s belief must be subjectively reasonable, which is to say that the defendant actually believed, based upon all the circumstances perceived by him or her at the time deadly force was used, that such force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. Second, the defendant’s belief must be objectively reasonable when considering all of the circumstances surrounding the defendant’s use of deadly force, which is to say that another person, similarly situated, could have reasonably formed the same belief. Our holding in Syllabus Point 6 of State v. McMillion, 104 W.Va. 1, 138 S.E. 732 (1927), is expressly overruled.

–Where it is determined that the defendant’s actions were not reasonably made in self-defense, evidence that the decedent had abused or threatened the life of the defendant is nonetheless relevant and may negate or tend to negate a necessary element of the offense(s) charged, such as malice or intent.

–An occupant who is, without provocation, attacked in his or her home, dwelling or place of temporary abode, by a co-occupant who also has a lawful right to be upon the premises, may invoke the law of self-defense and in such circumstances use deadly force, without retreating, where the occupant reasonably believes, and does believe, that he or she is at imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury. In determining whether the circumstances formed a reasonable basis for the occupant to believe that he or she was at imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury at the hands of the co-occupant, the inquiry is two-fold. First, the occupant’s belief must be subjectively reasonable, which is to say that the occupant actually believed, based upon all the circumstances perceived by him or her at the time deadly force was used, that such force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. Second, the occupant’s belief must be objectively reasonable when considering all of the circumstances surrounding the occupant’s use of deadly force, which is to say that another person, similarly situated, could have reasonably formed the same belief. Our decision in Syllabus Point 2, State v. Crawford, 66 W.Va. 114, 66 S.E. 110 (1909), is expressly overruled.