On July 30, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Union County case of State v. Joey Fowler, et al. Justice LaVecchia wrote for a 6-1 majority of the Court. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4 was whether the trial court should have charged the jury with self-defense when the defendant asserted that the victim was accidentally shot when the defendant wrestled with another person for the gun.
The Court held in relevant part: If a “self-defense charge is requested and supported by some evidence in the record, it must be given.” However, absent a request from the parties, “evidence must ‘clearly indicate’ such a defense” to warrant a self-defense instruction.
As noted, under the Criminal Code “the use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.” As with all statutes, when interpreting provisions of the Criminal Code the Court first looks to “the statute’s plain language, giving terms their ordinary meaning.” If the plain language is clear, “we then are duty-bound to apply that plain meaning.”
Because Hearns made a request for a traditional self-defense charge we dispose quickly of the argument.
The plain language of our self-defense statute clearly indicates that it is inapplicable to the factual scenario proffered by Hearns. The language of the statute is not drafted to address force used against third parties, but rather offers justification for force used against a party who uses force against the defendant. Therefore — as noted by the trial court, and ultimately not contested by either defendant’s attorney — a self-defense instruction would have been appropriate had Jones, the alleged attacker, been the victim, but not Johnson as a third-party bystander.
Contrary to the assertion of the dissent, based on the testimony of Hearns, the trial court was not “bound to honor Hearns’s request for a self-defense charge on the murder count,” post at __ (slip op. at 2), because the death of a bystander does not fit in the wording of our self-defense statute. Indeed, the Appellate Division ruled consistently with our view on this point. We hold that the trial court did not err in denying a traditional self-defense charge when there was no evidence of use of force by Johnson against Hearns.
The Court’s holding is intuitive, especially when viewed from the perspective of the victim. The victim’s natural response would be that no one had any right to use self-defense against me because I was not threatening anyone.