Self-defence rejected in judge-alone trial
Bianca Nanette Vega was ordered to return to Grand Court on 19 July for sentencing after she was found guilty of wounding.
Vega admitted stabbing Norman Christopher McLaughlin in the early hours of 18 December, 2011 at a West Bay yard where people were drinking and playing dominoes. She said she was acting in self-defence when she stabbed him twice in the chest.
In court, she chose to be tried by judge alone and pleaded not guilty to both wounding and wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
Justice Michael Mettyear heard the matter the week of 2 July. He handed down his verdict on Friday, 12 July: not guilty of wounding with intent, guilty of wounding.
He said he was confident that, had Vega not carried a knife – or not used it – the incident would have passed with little or no injury to anyone.
Vega told the court she carried the knife, which had a three-inch retractable blade, for protection because of the area into which she had moved. She was concerned about rape or abduction and had previously carried pepper spray but had been told not to. She felt she needed something.
When self-defence is raised, it is for the Crown to disprove it; no burden shifts to the defendant, the judge pointed out.
There are two separate elements to be considered, he said. The first is whether Vega honestly believed it was necessary to use force to defend herself. The second is the reasonableness of her actions.
“In defending oneself, a person may use only such force as is reasonable in the circumstances as the defendant believes them to be … A jury or judge deciding the fact should take into account that a person acting in self-defence may not be able to judge exactly the measure of response required and that, if the defendant only used force which he or she honestly and instinctively thought was necessary, that would be powerful evidence that his or her response was reasonable,” the judge said.
The evidence was that Mr. McLaughlin was at the yard a considerable part of the day and into the night; he had started drinking mid-afternoon. He said he was in and out of the house and when he came out he saw Vega sitting in his chair.
He asked her to move, but she ignored his request and when he asked again she used rude language. Words were exchanged, whereupon Vega got out of the chair and hit him twice in the chest. He said there had been no bad blood between them before.
Vega said she came to look for a friend around 12.15am. She heard Mr. McLaughlin inside the house talking about her and calling her names. Then he approached her and accused her of saying things about him. He told her if she didn’t leave, he would bust her face.
She claimed that Mr. McLaughlin picked up a chair and held it as if he were going to swing it at her. He faked this motion twice, but the third time she thought he really was going to hit her so she took her knife from her pocket, pushed out the retractable blade and stabbed him.
Justice Mettyear summarised, “She said she did so because she was afraid – scared of being damaged if she was hit by the chair.”
Vega then left the yard, threw the knife into the sea, went home and then went to the police.
Defence witness Seth Rivers said he heard Mr. McLaughlin call Vega names. Then Mr. McLaughlin picked up a chair and approached the table where Vega was sitting. The chair was raised above his head and then he moved it to the side, still raised up. The next thing that happened was that Vega’s fist was going into Mr. McLaughlin’s chest.
Mr. Rivers said he did not know what Mr. McLaughlin was going to do with the chair. Only in cross-examination did he say the chair was being held to the side “as if he would swing it”.
Justice Mettyear said his impression was that Mr. McLaughlin was trying to tell the truth as he recalled it, but his account could not be accurate. The judge accepted it was possible that Mr. McLaughlin did approach where Vega was sitting in a hostile and threatening way and that he used a raised chair in so doing.
“That does not mean that the defendant believed that it was necessary to defend herself, but I cannot exclude the possibility that she did. Those findings mean that the Crown has not made me sure the defendant was not acting in self-defence,” he said.
The next issue was the reasonableness of her actions.
His finding was that Vega’s action in stabbing Mr. McLaughlin twice was not reasonable. “I find that she grossly exaggerated the threat posed to her. I reject her evidence that the chair was twice used in ‘fake’ attacks on her. Had that been the case, the action would certainly have been seen [by the defence witness] and he would have been keen to help her by saying so.”
The judge described Mr. McLaughlin as a man of slight build who was drunk that night. He was angry and misbehaving, but even with the chair raised, it was not reasonable to pull a knife and stab him.
Vega’s assertion that she was in fear for life was rejected. “She was, in my judgment, loud and angry herself and overreacted to the situation that faced her,” the judge said.
Senior Crown Counsel Elisabeth Lees submitted that anyone who stabs another person in the chest twice must intend to cause really serious harm. That was an attractive argument, Justice Mettyear agreed, but in this case he was dealing with a young female who had no history of violent behaviour. Further, she was under attack at the time, although not to the extent she claimed.
“I am aware that I may be being overly generous in so deciding, but I have to be sure of an actual intent to do really serious harm in order to convict … and I am not sure that she intended some harm.”
He extended Vega’s bail until 19 July, but told her to prepare for a custodial sentence.