STATE v. JENNIFER HELMEDACH, SC 18744
Judicial District of New Haven
Criminal; Duress Defense; Whether Jury Instructions on Defense of Duress and Exception to Defense were Proper. At the defendant's trial for felony murder and robbery, testimony was presented that the defendant's boyfriend, David Bell, had physically and verbally abused the defendant in the past, that he did not abuse her for about one and one-half months after his release from a one year prison term, but that he thereafter resumed the abuse. Evidence was also presented that in September, 2004, the defendant lured the victim to the apartment where she and Bell were staying, that Bell stabbed and strangled the victim and that Bell and the defendant stole the victim's pocketbook and car. The court instructed the jury on the defense of duress as it appears in General Statutes § 53a-14 and on the statutory exception to that defense, instructing that the "defense of duress is not available to a person who intentionally or recklessly places herself in a situation in which it is probable that she will be subjected to duress." The defendant excepted to the instruction on the exception. The jury asked the court to provide a further explanation of duress in layman's terms and, specifically, on the portion of the exception that refers to a person willingly reentering a negative "situation." The court declined to do so. The defendant then submitted supplemental requests to charge the jury that the "situation" referred to in the exception referred, in her case, to the circumstances surrounding the crime and not to her choice to return to her relationship with Bell. The court rejected those requests. Following her conviction, the defendant appealed to the Appellate Court (125 Conn. App. 125), contending that the trial court, after the jury expressed confusion, improperly declined to define the term "situation" as that term appears in § 53a-14. The Appellate Court rejected her claim. The court reasoned that because there was no statutory definition of "situation," the trial court was not obligated to define it; that defining the term in the manner advanced by the defendant would have impinged on the exclusive role of the jury as fact finder; and that there was no evidence that the defendant was under any duress from Bell on the day of the murder. The Supreme Court has granted certification to decide whether the Appellate Court properly concluded that the trial court correctly charged the jury on the duress defense.