In a unanimous decision, the Washington Supreme Court clarified Washington’s Criminal Court Rules by holding that it is within the trial court’s discretion to provide preliminary rulings on jury instructions during trial. The Court then affirmed Ronald Mendes’s second degree murder conviction after rejecting his argument that he was “compelled” to testify in his defense.
After shooting and killing his former lover’s boyfriend, Ronald Mendes was charged and tried with second degree intentional murder, second degree felony murder, and four counts of witness tampering. Immediately following the State’s case during his retrial, Mendes asked the trial court whether he would be entitled to a self-defense instruction based on the State’s evidence alone. The trial court declined to decide the motion until both sides rested. Mendes testified in his own defense, claiming that his decision to testify was based on the court’s refusal to grant his motion regarding the self-defense jury instruction. The jury convicted Mendes of the felony murder and witness tampering charges.
Mendes appealed the felony murder conviction, arguing that because the trial court did not provide a preliminary ruling on the jury instructions, his constitutional rights against self-incrimination were violated as he was “compelled” to testify in his own defense. The Court of Appeals, Division II, affirmed his conviction, and Mendes appealed again.
Trial Court Has Discretion to Determine Preliminary Rulings on Jury Instructions
Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Charles Johnson first analyzed whether a trial court must give a ruling on jury instructions before the close of all the evidence upon a defendant’s motion. The Court recognized that Washington’s Criminal Court Rules dictate when parties must offer proposed jury instructions, but do not provide guidance to resolve this specific issue. The Court then held that it is within a trial court’s discretion to give a preliminary ruling on jury instructions at any time during trial, and concluded that the trial court did not abuse that discretion by opting to wait to decide Mendes’ motion until after both parties presented their cases.
Defendant’s Decision to Testify is Not Constitutional Compulsion
Next, the Court considered Mendes’s second claim, that he was “compelled” to testify in violation of his constitutional rights after the court declined to rule whether the State’s evidence alone entitled him to a self-defense instruction. Analyzing the use of the word “compelled” in both the federal and Washington State Constitutions, the Court concluded that the term connotes testimony under force, against a person’s will, or under compulsion. The Court held that no such force or compulsion existed here, where Mendes made a tactical decision to take the stand in his defense and after consulting with his attorney.