Supreme Court of Alaska (2022)
In Jones–Nelson v. State, 512 P.3d 665 (Alaska 2022), the supreme court held that an inaccurate
jury instruction was not harmless error when it incorrectly described the reasonableness
requirement for self–defense and improperly distinguished between different degrees of deadly
force. (Id. at 676–78). The suspect, Jones–Nelson, was at a party and confronted a man who had
allegedly spread rumors about him. (Id. at 668). Later, the man approached Jones–Nelson
aggressively but witnesses disputed whether he reached for his gun. (Id.). Jones–Nelson pulled out
his own gun and shot the man several times, discarded the gun, then sought to escape the state.
(Id.). After Jones–Nelson was arrested and charged, he argued that he acted in self–defense. (Id.).
But the court instructed the jury (over Jones–Nelson’s objection) that a person could be permitted
to use deadly force in self–defense but still not be allowed to use all–out deadly force. (Id. at 668–
69). And the prosecutor suggested to the jury that they consider whether Jones–Nelson’s actions
were reasonable from their own points of view. (Id. at 669). The jury convicted Jones–Nelson of
murder and the court of appeals held that although the jury instruction was legally incorrect, it was
harmless error because context would prevent the instructions from misleading the jury. (Id. at
669–70). On appeal to the supreme court, Jones–Nelson argued that the court of appeals incorrectly
considered the error harmless, and the supreme court agreed. (Id. at 670). The supreme court
reasoned that the jury instruction incorrectly suggested that reasonableness of self–defense could
be assessed retroactively. (Id. at 672–73). And the court further reasoned that both the text of the
relevant statute and legislative history clarify there is no legal distinction between deadly force
and all–out deadly force in self–defense. (Id. at 673–76). Further, the court pointed out that the
prosecutor’s statements to the jury actually increased the harm from the incorrect jury instructions.
(Id. at 678). As a result, the supreme court held that an inaccurate jury instruction was not harmless
error when it incorrectly described the reasonableness requirement for self–defense and improperly
distinguished between different degrees of deadly force. (Id. at 676–78).