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Helping jurors stay focused key to not-guilty verdict

Attorney Hannah McCausland won a not-guilty verdict for a client accused of assault, and after her Feb. 26 win in Clark County District Court she said a key to winning the case was asking the judge to read what’s called a Petrich instruction to the jury.

The Petrich instruction was named for a defendant who was charged with committing the same crime on several distinct occasions. Petrich’s conviction was overturned on appeal because the jury did not unanimously agree on which of the alleged acts had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

That violated the defendant’s right to a unanimous jury verdict, appellate judges ruled.

In McCausland’s case, her client was charged with fourth-degree assault domestic violence, a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. He had also been charged with attempted unlawful imprisonment, a gross misdemeanor, but a Vancouver assistant city attorney dismissed that charge on the morning of trial.

The allegations in the case didn’t exactly match the Petrich case. In this case, jurors heard different theories about the same incident. Three Vancouver police officers gave variations of what the defendant supposedly did to the alleged victim, his girlfriend: One officer said the girlfriend first said the defendant pulled her hair, but then said he only covered her mouth to keep her quiet. A second police officer agreed that the victim retracted her statement that the defendant pulled her hair, but said she accused the defendant of pushing her down onto a couch. A third police officer said the girlfriend only said the defendant covered her mouth to keep her from screaming.

Jurors also heard from the defendant’s girlfriend, who said no assault occurred.

She testified that she called 911 because she and the defendant were having an argument and she wanted him to leave the residence. She told the 911 dispatcher that the defendant hadn’t touched her, but she worried the situation might escalate into violence. The dispatcher told her to wait outside for police officers. She left her two young children inside the residence with the defendant and went to wait outside in her car, but gave up after about 15 minutes of waiting for officers.

She told jurors that once she was back inside, the defendant tried to kiss her in an attempt to make up, and she was still upset with him so she screamed at him. That’s when police officers arrived, and officers knocked down the door to get inside the residence because they heard the girlfriend yelling at the defendant to get away and leave her alone.

Since jurors heard different variations of what happened, McCausland said the spirit of the Petrich instruction fit the case – and the judge agreed.

So the six jurors were told that they had to unanimously agree on what, if any, criminal conduct occurred. Did the defendant clasp his hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming? Did he push her down on the couch? 

After about two hours of deliberations, the jurors unanimously agreed on one thing: The prosecution did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and the defendant was not guilty of assault.  

Tags: criminal law, not guilty, domestic violence

Jeffrey D. Barrar, P.S.: Vancouver Defenders Jeffrey D. Barrar, P.S.
Vancouver Defenders