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Savo v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

August 12, 2016

JOSHUA SAVO, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the District Court, Third Judicial District, Dillingham, Patricia L. Douglass, Judge. Trial Court No. 3DI-13-101 CR

          Appearances: Hanley R. Robinson, Anchorage, under contract with the Public Defender Agency, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Jack R. McKenna, Assistant District Attorney, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge.[*]

          OPINION

          MANNHEIMER. JUDGE.

         Joshua Savo was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, two crimes: fourth-degree assault and interfering with a report of domestic violence. [1]

         Before trial, Savo's attorney gave notice that he would present a defense of self-defense. But just prior to jury selection, at the behest of the prosecutor, Savo's trial judge issued an unusual ruling: she prohibited the defense attorney from mentioning anything about self-defense during jury selection and during his opening statement. The judge concluded that it would be improper to have the jurors hear anything about this proposed defense until later in the trial, after the defense attorney had actually introduced evidence that was sufficient to support a jury instruction on self-defense.

         The judge's rulingwas a significant error. It prevented the defense attorney from questioning the prospective jurors regarding self-defense - while at the same time giving the prosecutor free reign to question the jurors about the State's theory of the case. In addition, by requiring the defense attorney to avoid mentioning self-defense in his opening statement, the judge's ruling made it falsely appear as though the defense attorney had come up with the idea of self-defense at the last moment, during the trial itself.

         We therefore reverse Savo's convictions.

         A more detailed look at this case

         Three days before Savo's trial, the prosecutor filed a motion in limine asking the judge to completely preclude Savo from pursuing a claim of self-defense. In this motion, the prosecutor argued that there was no view of the evidence that could possibly justify a claim of self-defense.

         The prosecutor's motion was frivolous. The State's own pre-trialdisclosure included information that Savo's girlfriend had punched him, and that Savo had telephoned the police (from a closet) to report that his girlfriend had assaulted him. Thus, even before the defense presented any evidence of its own, it was obvious that there was evidence to support a claim of self-defense.

         What the prosecutor really argued in her motion was that no juror could possibly believe a claim of self-defense - i.e., no reasonable juror could believe that Savo's girlfriend was the initial aggressor or, even if she was, no reasonable juror could believe that Savo's response was proportionate.

         These were matters for the jury - and the trial judge should simply ...


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