Swenson Lervick attorney and Alexandria Assistant City Attorney Greg Donahue (above) has won the appeal of an assault conviction he obtained following a jury trial in Douglas County, Minnesota District Court. Affirming the conviction, the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s attempt to apply the “castle doctrine” to the common area of the jail where he was incarcerated.
The case involved an altercation at the Douglas County jail where defendant Curt Craven was an inmate. According to court records, another inmate (“J.P.”) called Craven derogatory names such as “chomo,” which is prison slang for “child molester,” and threatened to kill Craven. Later that night, Craven approached J.P. in a common area of the jail and struck him with a closed fist about a dozen times before a jailer tazed him. Court records also say that Craven admitted that he “‘planned’ to assault J.P. because when ‘somebody threatens your life in [jail], that’s all you have . . . and you don’t know if they’re going to take it seriously or not, so I just acted upon it before he could act upon it to me.'”
Craven was charged with misdemeanor assault, and Donahue tried the case to a jury. At trial, Craven asserted self-defense, so the court gave the jury an instruction on the four elements of self-defense:
(1) the absence of aggression or provocation on the part of the defendant;
(2) the defendant’s actual and honest belief that he or she was in imminent danger of . . . bodily harm;
(3) the existence of reasonable grounds for that belief; and
(4) the absence of a reasonable possibility of retreat to avoid the danger.
The jury rejected that defense and found Craven guilty of the assault on J.P.
Craven appealed his conviction to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. In his appeal, he argued that the “castle doctrine” should have been applied. As noted by the Court, the “castle doctrine” “is based on the principle that a person’s home is a person’s place of greatest safety, and the law therefore does not expect or require a person to retreat from his home.” When the doctrine applies, the “duty to retreat” instruction is not used.
Asserting that the jail was his “home” at the time, Craven argued that the “duty to retreat” instruction should not have been given. The Court of Appeals rejected Craven’s argument. Relying upon the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in State v. Devens, the Court ruled that the common area where the assault occurred was not Craven’s “home” at that moment because he actually could have retreated to his cell which would have been the “safest place” to which he could have retreated.
The Court also found that even if the trial court erred by including the “duty to retreat” instruction, the error was harmless. According to the Court, “The evidence shows that Craven was the aggressor and easily disproves the first self-defense element: ‘the absence of aggression or provocation on the part of the defendant.'”
“Greg did an outstanding job trying this case and securing a conviction that held up on appeal,” said City Attorney Tom Jacobson. “Serving as the Alexandria City Attorneys, we are committed to the fair and thorough investigation of all criminal cases that are under our jurisdiction. Where prosecution is warranted, our prosecutors hold themselves to the highest ethical standards and seek to promote justice for victims, defendants, and third parties affected by the case. That is exactly what Greg did here,” Jacobson added.
To read the Court’s opinion in this case, click State v. Craven.