The South Dakota Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments yesterday in South Dakota v. Ramon Deron Smith. Smith was sentenced to life in prison last year for killing Larry Carr, Jr., and shooting two other people with a stolen gun. Smith claims self-defense, and yesterday he told the Supreme Court that telling the jury he was a felon who couldn’t legally possess a gun unfairly weakened his self-defense claim before the jury:
“With respect to this testimony from the law enforcement officer who testified real briefly that the defendant was a convicted felon and couldn’t possess a gun, judge allowed that testimony to come in,” Chief Justice Steven Jensen said. “Tell me why you think that ruling was erroneous.”
“We thought that that was certainly irrelevant, overly prejudicial, and it didn’t go to anything as far as whether this killing was lawful or not,” said Manuel de Castro Jr., who represented Smith.
Justice Patricia DeVaney looked for clarity on this question, too.
“There are standards set out for what constitutes self-defense and a reasonable perception of an imminent threat,” DeVaney said. “So how does whether or not you possess the gun lawfully or unlawfully relate to your perception of the immediate threat that would allow you to use self-defense. I’m not getting the logical connection there.”
Assistant Attorney General Stephan Gemar argued on behalf of the state. He says the information about illegally having the gun was a piece of the overall puzzle.
“It was the defendant’s knowledge that he was unable to possess a firearm and under the justifiable homicide jury instruction, the jury needed to consider what a reasonable person in defendant’s position would have done, and that includes what the defendant knew,” Gemar said [Dan Santella, “SD Supreme Court Examines Ability to Possess Gun as Evidence in Murder Case,” KELO-TV, 2023.03.23].
I’m bothered by the argument that we can’t tell jurors plain facts in court. I would like to think we can trust jurors to focus on facts relevant to a case and that we could count on judges to guide jurors on what’s relevant and what isn’t.
But I can certainly see the point that how Smith got his gun and whether he could legally possess a gun is irrelevant to whether he has a right to self-defense. Suppose Smith had been jumped by a man carrying a gun. Suppose Smith fought back, the gun fell from the attacker’s hand, and Smith grabbed the gun and fired. Sure, Smith’s possession of that gun is illegal, but in the moment, Smith is still acting in self-defense. A felony conviction does not negate a person’s right to self-defense, which the U.S. Supreme Court tells us that the Second Amendment is at the core of the Second Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court is wrong, but that’s the law of the land for now. Do we really want to say that Smith and other felons may not use whatever force is available, including lethal gunpowder force, to defend their lives?