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9th Circuit Rejects Prisoner Self-Defense Theory in Assault with Shank

By Derek Gilna

The U.S. Appeals Court for the 9th Circuit has declined to permit prisoner Lenny Urena from asserting "self-defense" in his trial for assault with a dangerous weapon against a fellow prisoner. The Court also rejected Urena's claim that the District Court violated his Confrontation Clause rights by refusing to allow him to cross-examine the treating physician about the cause of the victim's injuries. Finally, the court declined to retroactively apply "recency points" to reduce his sentence, affirming the district court's decision.

Prisoner Urena, while in a federal holding facility, was attacked by another prisoner who called him a "bitch," a very insulting word in most prison settings. There was a later altercation when the original attacker was cut by a "shank," allegedly wielded by Urena.

According to the court, "the privilege of claiming self-defense as a justification for an assault is constrained by the need for an immediate threat of unlawful force, and the need for the action to be commensurate with the threat, with no more force used than reasonably necessary to meet it." The court then characterized Urena as the principal attacker, not entitled to assert the "self-defense" doctrine.

The Appellate Court also cited United States v. Besimar, 172 F3rd. 1121, (9th Cir. 1999), which held that, "a limitation on cross-examination does not violate the Confrontation Clause unless it limits relevant testimony and prejudices the defendant, and denies the jury sufficient information to appraise the biases and motivations of the witness." Since the government had called to testify a physician to testify only about the extent of the other prisoner's injuries, Urena could not cross-examine him on the issue of causation.

Similarly, since the change in the sentencing guidelines allowing "recency points" to be eliminated was not retroactive, Urena could not receive relief. See: United States v. Urena, 659 F.3d 903 (9th Cir., 2011).

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Related legal case

United States v. Urena