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Jury Instruction Error Not Harmless, Murder Conviction Reversed

People v. Schuller Court: Supreme Court of California, Docket: S272237, Opinion Date: August 17, 2023. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeal affirming Defendant's conviction of first-degree murder, holding that when the record contains substantial evidence of imperfect self-defense, the trial court's failure to instruct on that theory amounts to constitutional error and is subject to review under the federal Chapman standard. See Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967). On appeal, Defendant argued that the trial court committed harmful error in denying his request for an instruction on imperfect self-defense. The court of appeals affirmed, concluding that the trial court erred but that the error was subject to the "reasonable probability" standard for evaluating prejudice set forth in People v. Watson, 46 Cal.2d 818 (1956) and that Defendant suffered no prejudice. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the form of misconstruction in this case precluded the jury from making a finding on a factual issue necessary to establish the element of malice, thus qualifying as a federal error; and (2) the court of appeal's harmless error analysis did not comport with the standards for evaluating prejudice under Chapman.

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