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State v. Oates

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

February 13, 2018

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
THOMAS OATES, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ST. LOUIS COUNTY The Honorable Kristine Kerr, Judge

          W. Brent Powell, Judge

         Thomas Oates was charged with two counts of second-degree murder (conventional murder) and two counts of armed criminal action. A jury convicted Oates of two counts of second-degree murder (felony murder) and two counts of armed criminal action. On appeal, Oates argues the circuit court erred in: (1) refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense as to felony murder; and (2) submitting instructions on felony murder for the second-degree murder counts. The circuit court's judgment is affirmed.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Oates went to a gas station to sell marijuana to a prospective buyer, Darrah Lane, who had arranged the meeting. Oates brought a gun with him. When Oates arrived, he walked over to Lane's vehicle. She was seated in the driver's seat and accompanied by Leon Davis, who sat in the passenger's seat. With the driver's side window down, Oates leaned into the vehicle to discuss the sale and presented a plastic storage container full of marijuana. Lane took the lid off the container, smelled the marijuana, and passed the container to Davis. As Davis examined the marijuana, the parties negotiated the sale. When the parties could not come to an agreement, Oates reached into the vehicle in an attempt to retrieve the marijuana from Davis. At that point, Lane stepped on the vehicle's gas pedal. Oates, caught halfway in the moving vehicle, lunged into the vehicle through the window and fell into the backseat. Oates then shot and killed both Lane and Davis.

         Oates was charged with two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of armed criminal action. For the second-degree murder counts, the indictment charged Oates with "conventional murder" rather than "felony murder."[1] The State later filed a notice of intention to submit felony murder as an alternative to conventional murder for the second-degree murder counts with attempted distribution of a controlled substance as the underlying felony. Oates filed a motion to strike the notice. The circuit court overruled the motion but allowed Oates' objection to the submission of felony murder to stand throughout the trial.

         At trial, Oates testified that, after he fell into the backseat of Lane's vehicle, Davis pulled out a gun. Believing Davis was going to shoot him, Oates pulled out his own gun and shot Davis. Oates further testified Lane then reached for Davis' gun, and Oates shot her because he believed Lane was going to shoot him.

         For the second-degree murder counts, the circuit court instructed the jury on conventional murder, the lesser offenses of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, and, in the alternative, felony murder. At Oates' request, the circuit court instructed the jury on self-defense as to conventional murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. The circuit court, however, refused Oates' request to instruct the jury on self-defense as to felony murder, reasoning self-defense was not a defense to felony murder as a matter of law.

         The jury convicted Oates of two alternative counts of felony murder and the accompanying two counts of armed criminal action. Oates filed a motion for new trial, arguing the circuit court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense as to felony murder and in submitting instructions on felony murder for the second-degree murder counts. The circuit court overruled Oates' motion. Oates appealed and, after opinion, the court of appeals transferred the case to this Court pursuant to article V, § 10 of the Missouri Constitution.

          II. Refusing to Instruct on Self-Defense as to Felony Murder

         In his first point on appeal, Oates argues the circuit court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense as to felony murder. This Court has previously held self-defense, as a matter of law, is not a defense to felony murder. See, e.g., State v. Newman, 605 S.W.2d 781, 786 (Mo. 1980); State v. Burnett, 293 S.W.2d 335, 343 (Mo. banc 1956). Oates acknowledges these prior holdings but contends they no longer control. Relying on statutory changes to the law of self-defense enacted in 2007, and not previously addressed by this Court, Oates argues he is entitled to claim self-defense for felony murder as a result of the 2007 changes in the law.[2] Oates' argument, however, fails to appreciate that the 2007 changes did not alter the statutory principle in Missouri that self-defense justifies only the use of force and is, therefore, a defense only to prosecution for the use of force. Consequently, where, as here, the prosecution for felony murder is not based on the defendant's use of force but rather the underlying felony of attempting to distribute a controlled substance, self-defense continues, as a matter of law, not to be a defense to felony murder.

         Turning to Oates' argument, he cites §§ 563.031.1 and 563.074.1[3] for support. Section 563.031.1, which codifies the justification of self-defense, provides a person may, subject to exceptions, "use physical force upon another person when and to the extent he or she reasonably believes such force to be necessary to defend himself or herself … from what he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful force by such person." In 2007, § 563.074.1 was adopted, providing "a person who uses force as described in section[] 563.031 … is justified in using such force and such fact shall be an absolute defense to criminal prosecution or civil liability." (Emphasis added). Also in 2007, an exception to the justification of self-defense was added to § 563.031.1 providing a person may not use self-defense as a justification for the person's use of physical force against another if the person "was attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of a forcible felony." Section 563.031.1(3) (emphasis added). Because he was not committing a forcible felony when he attempted to distribute a controlled substance, Oates argues § 563.031.1(3) did not preclude self-defense as a justification for his use of force and, therefore, after 2007, self-defense provides "an absolute defense to criminal prosecution" pursuant to § 563.074.1, including prosecution for felony murder.

         While Oates is correct that § 563.031.1(3) did not preclude self-defense as a justification for his use of force because he was not committing a forcible felony, [4] self-defense justifies only that-the use of force. This is evident in the plain language of §§ 563.031.1 and 563.074.1, which speak only in terms of the use of force. See § 563.031.1 (providing a person may "use physical force" in self-defense) (emphasis added); § 563.074.1 (providing "a person who uses force [in self-defense] is justified in using such force and such fact shall be an absolute defense") (emphasis added). Because self-defense justifies only the use of force, it is an absolute defense only to prosecution for the use of force, not prosecution for other acts not involving the use of force, such as those constituting a non-forcible felony. See §§ 563.031.1, 563.074.1.

         Accordingly, the dispositive question is whether Oates was prosecuted for his use of force, which self-defense could justify, or for a different act not involving the use of force, which self-defense could not justify. When a defendant's use of force causes the death of a person and the State charges the defendant with conventional murder or manslaughter, the criminal act being prosecuted is the defendant's use of force. See §§ 565.021.1(1), 565.023.1(1), 565.024.1(1), RSMo 2000. As such, self-defense is an available justification. See ยงยง 563.031.1, 563.074.1. Therefore, the circuit court in this case appropriately instructed the jury on self-defense as to conventional murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. But felony murder is ...


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