Updated on September 25, 2023
The Perfect Chance to Re-Formulate an Imperfect Instruction
United States v. Britt, No. 22-7012, 2023 WL 5615430 (10th Cir. Aug. 31, 2023), https://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/sites/ca10/files/opinions/010110911865.pdf.
Karlie Ruder, Staff Editor
Issue: When defense counsel proposes a confusing and legally incorrect version of an imperfect self-defense jury instruction, and the defense is supported by evidence at trial, does the court have a duty to formulate and offer a correct version of the instruction?
Answer: Yes. When defense counsel proposes a confusing and legally incorrect version of an imperfect self-defense jury instruction, and the defense is supported by evidence at trial, the court has a duty to formulate and offer a correct version of the instruction.This duty exists even if the defendant does not simultaneously request an involuntary manslaughter instruction.
Facts: The United States charged Diamond Levi Britt with the first-degree murder of his father. Before trial, Britt’s counsel proposed jury instructions on self-defense and imperfect self-defense. The district judge concluded that counsel’s proposed instruction on imperfect self-defense was confusing and legally incorrect. Britt’s counsel acknowledged the inefficiencies of his version and asked the court to formulate a better version of the instruction. The district judge denied this request and instructed the jury only on self-defense. The jury convicted Britt on the first-degree murder charge. Following trial, the court sentenced Britt to life imprisonment. Britt challenged the conviction, arguing that the district court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on imperfect self-defense.
Discussion: The Tenth Circuit agreed, holding that the district court had a duty to formulate and offer an imperfect self-defense instruction, even though counsel’s proposed version of the instruction was confusing and legally incorrect. The court reasoned that the defense itself was supported by evidence presented at trial and that counsel had affirmatively asked the court to correct his version and better formulate the instruction.
Based on the Tenth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Sago, the dissent argued that Britt was not entitled to an imperfect self-defense instruction because he did not simultaneously request an instruction on involuntary manslaughter. The majority disagreed, explaining that the defendant in Sago differed from Britt in two important ways. First, Britt requested the imperfect self-defense instruction, while Sago did not. Second, Britt did not argue against including the involuntary manslaughter instruction, while Sago did. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court therefore had a duty to formulate an instruction on imperfect self-defense, even though defense counsel did not simultaneously request an instruction on involuntary manslaughter and originally proposed a flawed version of the instruction.
Key Authorities: Mathews v. United States, 485 U.S. 58, 63 (1988); United States v. Sago, 74 F.4th 1152 (10th Cir. 2023).
 Mathews v. United States, 485 U.S. 58, 63 (1988) (holding that a defendant is entitled to a jury instruction on a legally viable defense supported by the evidence presented at trial).
 United States v. Sago, 74 F.4th 1152 (10th Cir. 2023) (holding that a defendant who did not request an instruction of imperfect self-defense could not claim the court erred in failing to give the instruction on its own, particularly considering how the defendant wanted to reap the benefit of the defense without including an instruction on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter which the jury could have convicted him on).