Appeal from the District Court of Albany County. The Honorable Jeffrey A. Donnell, Judge.
For Appellant: Office of the Public Defender: Diane M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Chief Appellate Counsel; Eric M. Alden, Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel. Argument by Mr. Alden.
For Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; David L. Delicath, Deputy Attorney General; Jenny L. Craig, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Blake A. Klinkner, Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Mr. Klinkner.
Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, KITE, DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.
[¶1] Terence James appeals his conviction for aiding and abetting aggravated robbery, claiming the district court denied him the right to due process when it refused to instruct the jury on his defense of duress. We conclude Mr. James was denied his right to a fair trial when the district court ruled the duress defense instruction would not be given to the jury after Mr. James testified and admitted the elements of the crime, leaving him with no defense whatsoever. We reverse and remand for a new trial.
[¶2] Mr. James asserts he was denied his right to due process when the district court refused to instruct the jury on his defense of duress. The State contends the district court properly ruled Mr. James was not entitled to the instruction because he did not present competent evidence establishing a prima facie case of duress.
[¶3] On January 1, 2013, Mr. James and Kevin Lewis entered the Fairfield Inn in Laramie, Wyoming wearing bandanas over their faces. Mr. Lewis told the front desk clerk this was a robbery and brandished a gun. The desk clerk opened the side door to allow Mr. Lewis behind the desk and Mr. Lewis asked him to open the drawer and show him the money. Mr. Lewis removed the money and asked whether there was a safe. The desk clerk sad there was but he did not have the combination. Mr. Lewis asked the clerk for his wallet. Mr. Lewis and Mr. James then left the hotel.
[¶4] On January 11, 2013, a business was robbed in Cheyenne. Police stopped a vehicle matching the description of the car used in the robbery. Mr. Lewis and Mr. James were in the vehicle. During questioning, Mr. James told police he was not with Mr. Lewis when he committed the Cheyenne robbery earlier that evening. He said Mr. Lewis had attempted to contact him that day but he had refused to talk to him. Mr. James admitted his involvement in the Laramie robbery. He also told police he had been with Mr. Lewis when he committed a robbery in Colorado and attempted a robbery in Casper, Wyoming the week before. Mr. James was arrested and charged with accessory before the fact to aggravated robbery, in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-1-201(a) and § 6-2-401(a)(c)(ii) (LexisNexis 2011) for his involvement in the Laramie robbery.
[¶5] Prior to trial, Mr. James submitted the following jury instruction:
DEFENDANT'S PROPOSED JURY INSTRUCTION NO. J
Duress Defense Instruction
[C]onduct which would otherwise constitute an offense is justified if a reasonable person would believe that he was compelled to engage in the proscribed conduct by the threat or [use] of immediate physical force against his person or the person of another which resulted or could result in serious physical injury which a reasonable person in the situation would not have resisted.
The State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act with such justification. If the State fails to carry this burden, then you must find the defendant not guilty of the charge.
[¶6] In her opening statement, defense counsel told the jury that Mr. James' presence during the motel robbery was compelled by Mr. Lewis' intimidating behavior and threats to harm Mr. James or his family. She told the jury that Mr. Lewis had easy
access to Mr. James, his mother and his family because he lived with them. She told the jury that Mr. James did not want to participate in Mr. Lewis' criminal acts but feared that if he refused, Mr. Lewis would harm his family.
[¶7] During cross-examination of the State's witnesses, defense counsel made it clear that although Mr. James was present during the robbery, Mr. Lewis had the gun, did all the talking and took the money. Defense counsel also made it clear that Mr. James told police Mr. Lewis had threatened him and his mother and he was scared of Mr. Lewis.
[¶8] On the morning of the second day of trial, the district court held a jury instruction conference outside the presence of the jury. After hearing argument from counsel, the court decided any duress defense instruction given to the jury would state:
Duress may be a defense to criminal charges. Thus conduct that would otherwise constitute a criminal offense may be justified if a reasonable person would believe that he was compelled to engage in that conduct by the threat or use of immediate physical force against his person or the person of another which results or could result in serious physical injury which a reasonable person in the situation would not have resisted.
If there was a reasonable legal alternative to violating the law, a chance both to refuse to do the criminal act and also to avoid the threatened harm, the defense must fail.
The duress must be present, imminent or impending, and it must be of such a nature so as to induce a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm if ...