Tags: Criminal law, Justification, Self-defense
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The legal case involves Bernhard Goetz, who was indicted on charges of attempted murder, assault, and other offenses for shooting and injuring four youths on a subway train in New York. The prosecutor's instructions to the Grand Jury on the law of justification were erroneous, causing severe prejudice to the defendant. The lower courts dismissed some charges, but the court has reversed and reinstated all counts of the indictment. However, the factual background is disputed and will be determined by a trial jury. The court found that the prosecutor properly instructed the Grand Jury to examine the reasonableness of the defendant's use of deadly physical force under an objective, reasonable person standard. Additionally, the court held that allegedly exculpatory information that became available later provided no basis for dismissing nine counts of the indictment. Criminal Term properly interpreted People v Pelchat to require a re-presentation of counts supported by strongly apparent perjurious testimony. The court ultimately agreed with the dissenters that none of the charges in the second indictment should be dismissed. The prosecutor correctly charged the justification defense in section 35.15 to the Grand Jury, and the lower courts erred in their interpretation of the term "reasonably believes" by requiring a purely subjective test. The Legislature intended to retain an objective element in any provision authorizing the use of deadly physical force.
New York law allows the use of deadly force in self-defense if the belief is objectively reasonable. The standard for determining reasonableness is that of an ordinary person in the same circumstances. The lower court's interpretation of the change in statutory language from "reasonable ground" to "he reasonably believes" in Penal Law § 35.15 is flawed. The Legislature did not intend to allow individuals to set their own standards for the permissible use of force by completely exonerating them based on their own perceptions. The indictment against Goetz should not be dismissed based on hearsay evidence, and the Criminal Term Justice's conclusion that the Grand Jury testimony was perjured is inappropriate. The Appellate Division's decision is overturned, and the dismissed charges are reinstated. All judges agree.
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