Third Circuit Finds Just Cause or Excuse Defense Not Applicable in Prison Assault Case

By Derek Gilna

Aaron Taylor, incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) in Philadelphia, was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon under 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(3) and assault resulting in serious bodily injury under § 113(a)(6), stemming from an attack on another prisoner. He attempted to assert the affirmative defense of “just cause or excuse” but the district court held that he failed to establish the defense as a matter of law.

On appeal, the Third Circuit found that “the elements of justification are: First, that [the defendant] was under an immediate, unlawful threat of death, or serious bodily injury to himself or to others; Second, that [he] had a well-grounded fear that the threat would be carried out if he did not commit the offense; Third, that the criminal action was directly caused by the need to avoid the threatened harm and that [he] had no reasonable, lawful opportunity to avoid the threatened harm without committing the offense … and Fourth, that he had not recklessly placed himself in a situation in which he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct.”

The district court allowed Taylor to testify as to the elements of his defense, but ultimately refused to permit additional witnesses and a prison-culture expert due to the circumstances of the assault. Taylor, who is black, had been involved in what appeared to be a racially-motivated disagreement with a white prisoner who allegedly had threatened Taylor for staring at a white, female psychiatrist. Taylor later attacked the other prisoner, who was handcuffed, while in a recreation cage – stabbing and cutting him with a shank fashioned from a razor blade. Following his conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(3), Taylor received a 120-month sentence run consecutive to his prior sentence; the § 113(a)(6) charge was dropped.

Although the district court noted that Taylor may have felt justified in trying to deal with a perceived threat of harm, he was not entitled to prevail based upon his affirmative defense of “just cause or excuse” because he never “availed himself of [a] reasonable lawful opportunity” to avoid that threat. The judge precluded Taylor from offering additional witnesses and also refused to instruct the jury about the doctrine of justification.

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