Image showing cars parked next to gas pumps at a gas station.

A Clark County man was entitled to argue self-defense when he intentionally shot toward a person, and was not required to show he intended to kill or harm the man who threatened him, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

A divided Supreme Court vacated the felonious assault conviction of Tyler Wilson for his altercation at a Springfield gas station in 2021. At trial, Wilson was acquitted of attempted murder but convicted of felonious assault after he fired a shot at Billy Reffett. The shot struck the window frame of Reffett’s truck, near his head.

The trial judge refused to instruct the jury to consider Wilson’s argument that he acted in self-defense. The judge ruled Wilson was not claiming self-defense because Wilson testified that he did not aim the gun at Reffett and had no intention of harming him but was just trying to get Reffett to “back off.”

In the Court’s lead opinion, Justice Melody Stewart stated that the Ohio self-defense law does not require an intent to harm or kill another, just the “intent to repel or escape force.” Shooting toward another with the intent to stop an aggressor is sufficient to justify a self-defense jury instruction, she concluded.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Clark County Common Pleas Court to vacate Wilson’s sentence and conduct further proceedings.

Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Stewart’s opinion. Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in judgment only without a written opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Joseph T. Deters wrote that Wilson’s version of what had happened did not warrant a self-defense instruction.

Because Wilson insisted that he was not aiming the gun at Reffett or trying to shoot him, Wilson was arguing that he had not committed felonious assault. Arguing he was not guilty of felonious assault is different than claiming he acted in self-defense, which would require Wilson to admit he attempted to harm Reffett but was justified in doing so, Justice Deters explained.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justice R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Deters’ opinion.

Spat at Gas Station Leads to Shooting and Chase
On a June 2021 morning, Wilson drove his friend’s car and parked at a gas station pump. Reffett was on his way to work and stopped at the same gas station. As Reffett was seeking out a pump, he drove between Wilson’s car and another vehicle.

Wilson began to yell at Reffett because he believed Reffett had driven too close and nearly clipped the car. Reffett backed up his truck until his driver-side window was next to Wilson’s driver-side window. Reffett’s truck was so close that Wilson believed he could not open his door.

Wilson claimed that Reffett was hanging out the truck door and spitting in Wilson’s face as the two argued. Wilson testified that Reffett said, “[W]hat you gonna do? I’ll smoke you out here.” Wilson said Reffett pointed a gun at him. During the investigation, Reffett denied pointing a gun or even having a gun.

Wilson’s friend, the owner of the car, had a gun in the car. Wilson said he quickly grabbed it, aimed out the window, and fired in an upward direction. The bullet struck the truck near Reffett’s head. Wilson drove away from the gas station, and Reffett chased him. The chased spilled onto the interstate, and both vehicles reached speeds of up to 90 mph.

Reffett called 911 as he was chasing Wilson. He eventually gave up and went to work. Reffett did not meet with police until several hours later when he got off work.

Wilson’s car ran out of gas on the highway. When law enforcement arrived to assist the disabled vehicle, they discovered Wilson had unrelated warrants and took him into custody. He was later charged with attempted murder and felonious assault.

Shooter, Witnesses Testify at Trial
At his trial, Wilson testified in his own defense, as did other witnesses from the gas station. Reffett also testified. When asked if he intended to shoot Reffett, Wilson answered that he did not. He said Reffett had a gun, and Wilson grabbed his passenger’s gun to protect himself and her. He said he was just firing into the air to get Reffett to back away.

Wilson initially presented the legal theory that he was acting in self-defense. At the close of evidence, the trial judge conferred with Wilson’s attorney and the prosecutor. The trial judge stated he was not inclined to instruct the jury on self-defense based on Wilson’s testimony because he was not attempting to harm Reffett. Instead, the judge indicated that Wilson was arguing he did not commit the charged crimes because he had no intention of harming anyone.

After he was convicted of felonious assault, Wilson appealed to the Second District Court of Appeals. In his appeal, he argued he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to seek a self-defense jury instruction.

The Second District affirmed the conviction and denied the claim that Wilson’s attorney was ineffective. Wilson appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Analyzed Self-Defense Claim
Justice Stewart explained that the lower courts wrongly concluded that to argue self-defense, the accused must show that they acted with the intent to harm or kill another person. She wrote that the self-defense law, R.C. 2901.05(B)(1), is available to those who present evidence that tends to support their claim that they used force “in self-defense, defense of another, or defense of that person’s residence.” Nothing in the statute specifies the accused must act with intent to kill or harm another.

The lead opinion stated that for nearly 100 years, the Court had held that self-defense “presumes intentional, willful use of force to repel or escape force.”

“This means that the use of force must be intentional – not accidental. The only additional ‘intent’ required is the intent to repel or escape force, not an intent to use force to harm or kill another person,” the opinion stated.

The opinion stated that Wilson was trying to argue self-defense, and contrary to the lower court findings, he was not attempting to refute that his actions were not felonious assault. The lead opinion found that Wilson was trying to “justify” his use of force, rather than negate any element of felonious assault. Under R.C. 2903.11(A)(2), a person commits felonious assault when they “knowingly” cause or attempt to cause physical harm by means of a deadly weapon.  Under the standard of R.C. 2903.11(A)(2), Wilson acted knowingly because he was aware that his conduct could certainly cause harm to Reffett because Wilson was shooting so close to Reffett.  Wilson’s attorney was ineffective for not presenting the self-defense claim because that was the only defense supported by Wilson’s testimony, the opinion stated.

“The jury found Wilson not guilty of the attempted murder charge, which suggests the jury had some questions regarding Wilson’s intent. Further, it is unknown who the jury may have believed and how it may have weighed the evidence if it was instructed to consider Wilson’s claim of self-defense,” the Court stated.

Self-Defense Instruction Unwarranted, Dissent Stated
In his dissent, Justice Deters explained that self-defense is an “affirmative defense,” which means it is more than denying that the prosecution produced the evidence to prove the crime. Rather, an affirmative defense is a “true defense,” he wrote, that asserts the prosecution’s facts are true but the defendant is not guilty because the law provides a justification for the action.

The dissent indicated that Wilson was attempting to negate an element of the felonious assault charge. While he admitted he intentionally shot the gun, he flatly denied he attempted to cause physical harm. For Wilson to argue self-defense, he would have had to  admit that he attempted to harm Reffett but was justified in doing so.

“Because Wilson attempted to negate an element of felonious assault at trial, he did not assert a true affirmative defense,” the dissent stated.

The dissent added that Wilson’s attorney was not ineffective, and in light of the trial judge’s explanation as to why he was not going to provide a self-defense instruction, the attorney’s strategy was reasonable.

2022-1482State v. WilsonSlip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-776.

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices
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