Mimesis Law
21 November 2017

Kamuran Chabuk’s Self-Defense Gets “Rare” Second Chance

May 6, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — As far as headlines go, “Trial judge overturns guilty verdict in Bellingham self-defense case” isn’t that bad. It certainly isn’t false, as the judge did indeed seem to overturn the jury’s verdict, but there’s a lot more than that to what happened:

Months after a jury convicted him of felony assault for shooting his neighbor, a Bellingham man will get a new trial in a case in which he says he fired in self-defense.

What Whatcom, Washington, Superior Court Judge Ira Uhrig really did was grant a defense motion for a new trial. And given the circumstances, it seems like it was the right thing to do:

Last week, the Superior Court judge who oversaw the trial, Ira Uhrig, ruled that jurors had been misled by two key arguments made by the prosecution: That [Kamuran Daniel] Chabuk had an “absolute obligation” to warn Kiener, 33, that he had a gun, and that Chabuk went out of his way to provoke Kiener.

Uhrig noted the jury was instructed to follow an understanding of the laws as outlined by the judge, not the attorneys.

“But in this case,” Uhrig’s ruling reads, “the court is compelled to conclude that the arguments and the questions as outlined herein distracted the jury and misstated the law to such an extent that it is inconceivable that the jury was not prejudiced thereby and without question this had a substantial likelihood of affecting the verdict of the jury.”

Uhrig granted a defense motion for a new trial, writing that he has done so only one other time in his quarter-century on the bench.

A far more accurate headline would’ve been “Judge gives defendant in self-defense case a new trial because prosecution misled the jury,” or maybe “Prosecution misstated the law and distracted the jury, resulting in new trial for defendant in self-defense case.” That, and not the fact the judge’s ruling effectively overturned the jury’s verdict, should be the real story. After all, the jury, and accordingly its verdict, was prejudiced by the prosecution’s arguments.

The facts of the case were pretty simple and probably quite similar to countless other self-defense cases all across the country. Chabuk was a graduate teaching assistant who owned a handgun and had a concealed carry license. He heard something outside at night and went to check. When he realized it was just some guys roughhousing, he started to leave. The guys, who happened to be intoxicated, didn’t leave it at that. They acted like drunken fighting idiots often do, following Chabuk and falsely accusing him of a stupid little transgression that probably seemed pretty offensive to them in their stupor. Things eventually escalated to the point that Chabuk ordered them to leave his property. He asked someone to call 911, and then he finally ended up shooting one of the guys as he walked closer.

Who prosecutors decide to believe can be a mysterious thing, but after they’ve made that decision, their modus operandi rarely changes. It’s all about the things the defendant could have or should have done or not done, which is exactly the approach prosecutors took with Chabuk. Sure, it’s something prosecutors decide based on their presumably educated interpretation of the law, one developed after the fact in the comfort of their offices, but most of them don’t worry too much about that. At the root, self-defense cases often come down to a prosecutor’s opinion about what they would have done differently under the same circumstances.

In Chabuk’s case, actual law notwithstanding, prosecutors decided he should’ve told his wasted neighbors he had a gun rather than just telling them to go away.  As is also quite frequently the case, they tried to paint Chabuk as an instigator, as putting himself in the situation where he had to shoot. It turns out the argument that Chabuk had an obligation to tell them about the gun was a misstatement of the law. The latter, a pretty common prosecution tactic in self-defense cases, that judges usually view as a permissible argument if it’s even minimally supported by the facts, was also an issue under the circumstances. That the judge gave Chabuk a new trial where prosecutors made improper arguments to the jury shouldn’t be such a big deal at all.

It’s hard to tell why the article spends so much time emphasizing how unusual it apparently is to give a defendant a new trial. It’s also hard to believe given this sort of silliness:

McEachran and Follis, who have a combined 75 years of experience practicing law, said they have never had a jury’s guilty verdict overturned by the trial court.

“Exactly where it goes from this point is hard to say,” Follis said.

Later, he added, “It was a very difficult case for everybody involved, but we’re all thrilled to have another shot at this.”

McEachran plans to appeal Uhrig’s ruling. If it’s upheld by the Court of Appeals, he said he will plan for a second trial.

First, it’s amazing that two lawyers with that much combined experience have never seen a judge grant a defense motion for a new trial following a jury verdict. It certainly isn’t a common thing by any stretch of the imagination, but Bellingham would have to either have a remarkably perfect criminal justice system or one that’s totally rigged if two people with that much time in the system haven’t encountered a single instance of a judge deciding a defendant didn’t get a fair trial for some reason or another.

Prosecutors get carried away and say things they shouldn’t all the time. Judges make legal mistakes. There are all kinds of reasons why a defendant might be entitled to a new trial, and it seems highly unlikely that hasn’t been the case at some point in Bellingham in the past three quarters of a century. If those two lawyers have really never had it happen, the bigger story isn’t the fact it finally happened to them, but why on earth it hadn’t happened sooner.

Second, the idea that this situation is somehow so rare that Chabuk’s lawyer doesn’t even know where the case goes from this point is just stupid. The judge granted Chabuk’s motion for a new trial. The prosecution is appealing. The appeals court will decide if Chabuk should indeed get a new trial. If it agrees with the lower court judge, Chabuk gets a new trial. What’s so hard about that? Furthermore, the prosecutor even seems to have spelled that out in the article. He’s planning to appeal, but it he doesn’t succeed with that, he’s going to plan for a second trial. It all seems painfully obvious.

As a whole, the story comes off as one about a rogue trial judge doing something unheard of and not honoring a jury’s verdict. In reality, it’s a story about prosecutorial misconduct leading to a new trial. Sadly, the most important take away from the story might be the story itself and what the things its author chose to report say about how the media reports on the criminal justice system.

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