Drinking too much beer, getting angry and wanting to show off for a girl are a great recipe for trouble.
Bradley French, a 27-year-old inmate at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling, could write a book about it.
Instead, the former resident of Varna in Marshall County is serving a 30-year prison sentence for murder. Fortunately for him, a recent unanimous decision by the Third District Appellate Court in Ottawa reversed his conviction and gave him another chance at freedom.
The question for jurors in an upcoming trial is whether French ambushed 38-year-old Joshua Scaman of Oglesby in June 2015 by shooting him with a bow and arrow, whether French acted in self-defense when he killed Scaman or something in between.
The appellate court ruled that LaSalle County Judge H. Chris Ryan committed a reversible error when he refused to allow the jury to consider French’s claim that he acted in self-defense.
The court’s ruling provides an illuminating review not only of the complicated, convoluted and contested facts of the confrontation between the two men but also a thorough examination of the minimal legal hurdle a defendant faces when seeking to claim self-defense.
In convicting French of first-degree murder, jurors rejected the option of convicting him of the less-severe charge of second-degree murder, which used to be called voluntary manslaughter.
Obviously, jurors did not believe French’s account of the event, one in which he claimed that he was not looking for trouble but was unable to avoid a physical confrontation with the victim.
Here are two good reasons why jurors were skeptical.
For starters, French drove 40 minutes with his bow and arrow to face off with Scaman in the parking lot of Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby. Second, French was accompanied by the female friend he was hoping to impress — Rachel Milton — and she was charged with obstructing the police investigation into Scaman’s death by hiding the bow.
French has a simpler explanation for his troubles — thing went downhill when, after an evening of drinking, his phone rang.
“I wish I’d never answered my phone that night,” he said at his sentencing hearing.
But he did. Milton was calling to tell him that the boyfriend of her mother, Amanda Milton, was drunk, angry and threatening violence. Could she, her brother and her mother come to his house?
French agreed, and circumstances escalated when Scaman, whom French had never met, called Amanda Milton and threatened her. French then got on the phone, and Scaman reportedly threatened him.
The two men agreed to meet, and the stage for the fatal encounter was put in motion.
The issue before the appellate court is not necessarily what happened next, but what defense French, who is 5-foot-10 and 320 pounds, was legally entitled to present to jurors.
His assertion of self-defense was improperly denied by the judge even though French met legal requirements by presenting what the appellate court called “some evidence to support a self-defense theory.”
“An instruction for self-defense is given in a homicide case where there is some evidence in the record which, if believed by a jury, would support a claim of self-defense,” wrote Justice William Holdridge.
What is “some” evidence? It requires the presence of four elements — unlawful force was threatened against the defendant, the defendant was not the aggressor, the danger of harm was imminent and the defendant “actually and subjectively believed a danger existed that required the use of force.”
If one believes French’s account of the fatal encounter, it would clearly be self-defense. But it seems obvious that his account meets the “some evidence” test and required the judge to permit jurors to decide if they believed him.
The judge did allow the jury to consider second-degree murder, meaning jurors could have found French guilty of the lesser offense if they found French believed that deadly force against Scaman was justified but “his belief that such circumstance existed was unreasonable.”
Judging from their decision to convict French of first-degree murder, jurors weren’t buying what French was selling.
Prosecutors aren’t buying what the appellate court is selling, either. They’re asking the Illinois Supreme Court to review the appellate court decision, a long shot at best because the high court reviews only a very small percentage of the cases it is asked to hear.
That means it’s most likely that the French murder case will be going to trial a second time.
The defense got a big break when the trial judge screwed up on the self-defense issue. Perhaps the defense would be wiser not to press its luck again and see if the prosecution is willing to negotiate a plea bargain rather than have to go through the ordeal of a second trial.