Court of Appeals Affirms Decision to Reject Defendant’s PTSD in their Theory of Self-Defense

March 8, 2023 Criminal Defense, Violent Crimes

Most bar fights can end up with some bruises and, in bad scenarios, even some damage to the establishment. But what happens when things get out of hand, or worse, when a person pulls out a gun? Can a defendant claim that he was acting in self-defense?

This article will provide information on Florida’s self-defense law, along with details on a recent decision by the Second District Court of Appeal dealing with a defendant’s theory of self-defense involving his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”).

What is Self-Defense?

Florida Statute Section 776.012 titled “Justifiable Use of Force”, is divided into two sections. The first section dictates that under Florida law a person is justified in using or threatening to use force—except deadly force—against another when they believe it is reasonable to defend themselves against another person’s imminent use of unlawful force.

A person who uses force to defend themselves in accordance with this first section does not have a duty to retreat before using or threatening to use said force.

The second section of the statute covers the justification of using or threatening to use deadly force when a person believes that it is necessary to use it in order to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to themselves, or another person, or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

A forcible felony includes the following:

A person who uses deadly force to defend themselves in accordance with the second section does not have a duty to retreat before using or threatening to use such deadly force if they are NOT engaging in criminal activity and they are in a place where they have a right to be.

Recent Decision by the Second DCA

Florida’s District Courts of Appeal (“DCA”) are charged with reviewing the lower court’s decisions when one of the parties believes that the lower court erred in its judgment.

On February 10, 2023, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the decision from the Circuit Court for Pinellas County to reject the defendant’s theory of self-defense. The Second DCA certified that there is a conflict with the First DCA’s decision on State v. Mizell to Florida’s Supreme Court.

When there is a conflict between the different Appeal Courts, the Florida Supreme Court may take up these cases under its conflict jurisdiction. Meaning, that under their conflict jurisdiction the Florida Supreme Court can review and make an ultimate decision on which court is right, or even if both are wrong and create new jurisprudence.

The Second DCA in Oquendo v. State found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s request to present expert testimony on his post-traumatic stress disorder in support of his theory of self-defense.

What Happened? Two Different Stories

On April 12, 2015, James Cason was shot and killed outside a bar in Pinellas County. The specific facts of the shooting were hotly contested by the defendant and the State.

The defendant, Juan Javier Oquendo, testified that as he was leaving the bar, he mistook the victim’s car to be his friend who was picking him up. As the defendant approached the vehicle, the victim cursed and threatened him.

The defendant then testified that he saw the victim reaching and pulling a gun at him. He then tried to knock the gun from the victim by using his pool stick, followed by him grabbing the victim’s arm and taking his gun.

During this altercation, the defendant testified that the gun went off once or twice inside the vehicle. The defendant testified that he didn’t know that the victim had been shot and that the vehicle began moving forward.

The defendant thought he was in danger of being shot or getting run over by the victim’s car, which is why he shot at the vehicle with the gun several times.

The State’s witnesses painted a different story.

One witness, claiming to be nearby, stated someone said, “I got mine.” Another witness hears the victim say: “Don’t worry about it. I got something for you. I’ll be right back.” One witness testified that he saw the defendant punch into the car and hit the victim. The defendant then pulled out a gun and started shooting.

Another witness testified that he saw Oquendo poke his pool stick into the vehicle and that no gun was in the victim’s hand when this occurred. This witness was sure that the defendant did not pull a gun from the victim’s hand and that there was no struggle over a gun at any point because the gun came from the defendant. This witness saw the defendant pull the trigger and fire a shot at the victim.

Another witness testified that after the first shot was fired, the victim’s vehicle moved forward and hit a parked car.

The medical examiner testified that the victim died after sustaining a single gunshot wound to the head, above his left ear. He testified that the gun was fired from 1 ½ to 2 feet away from the victim. Crime scene technicians located multiple bullet holes in the victim’s vehicle as well as twelve shell casings.

Neither side disputes that after the shooting occurred, the defendant fled the scene. The defendant then went to the home of an old family friend who testified that the defendant told him “he shot someone,” and that the victim’s “gun didn’t go off, mine did.”

The Defendant’s Theory of Self-Defense

Before the trial started, the defendant had his expert testify to the judge that he suffered from PTSD. The expert explained to the court that he believed that the defendant had been suffering from PTSD for several years and that someone suffering from PTSD would be naturally inclined to believe that a situation could be threatening.

The defendant wanted to introduce during the trial the expert’s testimony regarding his PTSD and his elevated perception of danger but the trial court found that the evidence was not relevant to the issue of self-defense and excluded the testimony.

The court pointed to how under Florida law, the conduct of a person acting in self-defense was measured by an objective standard. An objective standard looks at what a reasonably prudent person would do under the same circumstances.

The District Court explained that the objective standard is “applied to the facts and circumstances as they appeared at the time of the altercation to the one acting in self-defense.” Furthermore, they stated that these considerations are not subject to a subjective standard, meaning that the defendant’s state of mind is of no consideration to the jury, but rather, what a reasonably prudent person’s state of mind would be under the presented danger.

The defendant’s PTSD was seen as showing that his reaction to the danger of the situation was objectively unreasonable because of his potential to misrepresent the danger of the situation.

Conflict with the First DCA

In State v. Mizell, the First DCA held that PTSD evidence was relevant when considering a defendant’s theory of self-defense. They specifically found that a defendant’s perception is relevant when considering if Self-Defense was an applicable defense.

The Second DCA stated that “it is true that a defendant’s perceptions are relevant — what he ascertained with his senses constitutes the circumstances under which he was required to assess whether the threat justified the use of force he exerted.” But they explained that this “does not make the self-defense test a subjective one, and it does not follow that a defendant’s misperceptions — his misunderstanding of reality as altered by a disorder such as PTSD — are relevant.”

The court explained that while the self-defense jury instruction requires that the defendant believed that the danger they were in was real, it also requires that the belief was objectively reasonable. This is because, while the person doesn’t need to be in actual danger, the self-defense theory requires two things; (1) that the appearance of danger is real and (2) that a reasonably cautious and prudent person, under the same circumstance, would have believed that the use of force used was the only way to prevent that perceived danger.

Reliance on Battered-Spouse Syndrome

The Second DCA characterized the Mizell court’s reliance on the admissibility of battered-spouse syndrome as a misunderstanding of the objective nature of the test that is used in justifying a theory of self-defense.

Battered-Spouse Syndrome is a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), rather than a mental illness. Battered Spouse Syndrome (previously referred to as Battered Woman’s Syndrome) is a condition that is created by sustained physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from a partner that results in a variety of physical and emotional symptoms.

Battered Spouse Syndrome is often the result of repeated violence such as:

  • Beating
  • Choking
  • Sexual Assault
  • Verbal Abuse

To learn more about Battered Spouse Syndrome, visit our page here where we delve into defendant Sarah Boone’s case and give relevant information.

The Oquendo court explained that the battered-spouse syndrome has been sanctioned by Florida’s Supreme Court as a way to show why the defendant’s actions were reasonable since despite a reasonable perception of danger from the battering spouse, the battered defendant would continue to reside in the home with the batterer.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

This newest decision by the Second District has the following consequences: if you or someone you know is being charged with a crime where PTSD was an aggravating factor, depending on where the charges are filed will make a difference in the possible defenses available.

Make sure to seek out legal guidance to understand the possible actions available to you or your loved one. While criminal convictions can lead to expensive fines, being imprisoned is one of the most serious repercussions. The best way to protect yourself or your loved one is to work with a skilled defense attorney in your area.

Don Pumphrey and his legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have years of experience representing Florida citizens from all walks of life. Our team will work tirelessly to build a strong defense for your case. Contact us today for a free consultation at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

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