A state appeals court has reversed a murder conviction and granted a new trial.
Stephen E. Swanton was convicted in December 2021 before Herkimer County Court Judge John H. Crandall of second-degree murder, first-degree assault, and two counts of first-degree criminal use of a firearm.
In a recent decision, the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Fourth Department, unanimously reversed the verdict and granted a new trial.
“We agree with defendant that County Court erred in refusing to charge the jury on the defense of justification pursuant to Penal Law Section 35.15 (2) (a),” the court wrote.
Swanton, who had been a friend and neighbor to the two victims, attended a party at the first victim’s home on the day of the alleged crime, and the second victim also was present.
After Swanton insulted one of the guests, the first victim asked him to leave the party and he returned to his home.
Several minutes later, both victims arrived at Swanton’s house where a physical altercation ensued.
The altercation ended when Swanton fatally shot the first victim in the driveway of his home. The second victim was also shot, but they survived.
Swanton testified that the first victim began punching him in the head, causing him to fall backward onto the ground. While Swanton was on his back, the first victim stomped on his leg and then straddled his waist, pinning him to the ground while continuing to hit him.
Swanton, who testified that he routinely carried a legally licensed gun, and he had been carrying a handgun since earlier in the evening while attending the party, drew his weapon and fired nine shots.
Five shots struck the first victim, and at least one struck the second victim.
Swanton testified that he did not intend to shoot the second victim, but that he had emptied the gun’s magazine to make sure the weapon could not be used against him.
It is reversible error for a trial court to fail to charge the jury with respect to the defense of justification when, “on any reasonable view of the evidence, the fact finder might have decided that defendant’s actions were justified,” the court wrote.
“We conclude that a reasonable view of the evidence supports defendant’s request for a justification charge,” the court wrote.
“The first victim was not armed, but defendant testified that he knew that the first victim owned at least one gun and that, at the time of the shooting, he did not know whether the first victim was armed. Further, defendant’s testimony that the first victim pinned him down and was repeatedly punching his face and head could support a finding that defendant reasonably believed that such conduct presented an imminent threat of deadly force,” the court wrote.
While Swanton’s version of events might be “dubious,” the court wrote, a judge must give the jury the justification charge even when the defendant’s version of events is “extraordinarily unlikely.”
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