The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday overturned a woman’s conviction and 96-year prison sentence for stabbing a man on a Denver RTD bus, finding that the prosecution wrongly argued the woman couldn’t have reasonably acted in self-defense because she didn’t retreat from the confrontation.
The 5-2 decision is rooted in the state’s stand-your-ground precedent and finds that prosecutors cannot argue that a person’s failure to retreat from an encounter undermines the reasonableness of a self-defense claim.
The case stems from a 2011 incident in which Sheila Monroe stabbed a man in the neck during an argument on an RTD bus. At trial, Monroe argued that she acted in self-defense and stabbed the man when he reached for something in his pocket during the argument.
But prosecutors several times suggested to the jury that Monroe could have moved away from the man instead of stabbing him, and that her failure to do so cast doubt on her claims of self-defense.
“Colorado has long followed the no-duty-to-retreat rule in self-defense cases,” Justice William Hood wrote for the majority. “The rule permits non-aggressors to stand their ground when acting in self-defense.”
Because Monroe was not legally required to retreat from the situation, raising the argument that she should have — over defense objections — was a prosecutorial error allowed by the trial judge, the court found.
“To allow the prosecution to argue that a defendant’s failure to retreat undermines the reasonableness of that defendant’s self-defense claim would cripple the no-duty-to-retreat rule,” Hood wrote.
The court ordered that Monroe be given a new trial.
In the dissent, Chief Justice Nathan Coats argued that the majority’s decision was wrong because the prosecution and court in the Monroe case repeatedly told the jury that she had no duty to retreat, even as they discussed that she could have.
“It would indisputably have been improper for the prosecutor to imply through his argument that the defendant did have a duty to retreat before using force against the victim,” Coats wrote, “but in light of his express warnings to the contrary, that clearly could not have been the case.”
Monroe’s possible avenues for retreat were part of the relevant evidence of the case, he said in the dissent.
“Ours is an adversarial system of justice,” he wrote. “While attorneys are clearly prohibited from misleading the jury or prompting the jury to act for improper reasons, limiting one side from asking the jury to draw reasonable inferences from evidence properly admitted at trial skews the process and detracts from its truth seeking goal.”
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