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

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.

Observing that Taylor had attacked the other handcuffed prisoner for more than two-and-a-half minutes while using a deadly weapon, despite being sprayed with OC spray by guards, the judge concluded, “I don’t think there was an immediate unlawful threat of death or serious bodily injury to himself or others.” The court noted that Taylor could have asked guards to remove him from the recreation cage.

The appellate court considered Taylor’s arguments, which included “whether, by including ‘without just cause or excuse’ in the federal assault with a dangerous weapon statute, 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(3), Congress intended to convert justification, ordinarily a common-law defense, into an element of the offense as to which the government bears the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Court of Appeals held that the “without just cause or excuse” language in § 113(a)(3) does not shift the burden of proof to the government. “The existence of ‘just cause or excuse’ for the assault is an affirmative defense, and the government does not have the burden of pleading or proving its absence,” the appellate court wrote.

The Third Circuit distinguished the case of United States v. Bordeaux, 570 F.3d 1041 (8th Cir. 2009), noting that Bordeaux “does not present an especially compelling counterpoint to the numerous cases suggesting that ‘just cause or excuse’ is an affirmative defense.”

Further, the appellate court held, a “more recent Supreme Court case, Dixon v. United States, 548 U.S. 1, 126 S.Ct. 2437, 165 L.Ed.2d 299 (2006), reinforces our conclusion that Taylor bore the burden of establishing the existence of a just cause or excuse in this case.” The Court of Appeals reasoned that the absence of just cause or excuse does not disprove the elements of assault under § 113(a)(3), and “placing the burden of proving the absence of just cause or excuse on the defendant does not run afoul of the Due Process Clause.” The Third Circuit also rejected Taylor’s arguments that he had been compelled to testify and was the victim of selective prosecution. Accordingly, the district court’s judgment was affirmed.

Taylor petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on June 24, 2013. See: United States v. Taylor, 686 F.3d 182 (3d Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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United States v. Taylor