The trial was held before Judge Stephen B. Simpson. At the trial, counsel for the defense proceeded on a theory of self-defense and defense of others, as Sanders asserted that Sherman’s death was the result of her protecting the lives of herself and her children. In support of Sanders’s claim that she had a reasonable apprehension that she and her children were in imminent danger from Sherman, her counsel attempted to present testimony which would prove Sherman’s violent nature toward her and her children. However, the trial court excluded most of the testimony regarding Sherman’s violent character. Specifically, Sanders was prevented from discussing her discovery of Sherman raping her then thirteen-year-old daughter on the night of the incident and threats made by Sherman on her life. Likewise, Sanders’s daughter was prohibited from testifying as to the violent sexual assault made on her by Sherman, which was the immediate precursor to Sherman’s physical attack on Sanders.
Additionally, Sanders testified that she was aware Sherman possessed a gun. Although Sanders’s counsel attempted to question her regarding her knowledge that Sherman kept the gun hidden under the mattress in their bedroom, the trial court sustained an objection to the testimony on the ground that the information was irrelevant. However, Sanders was allowed to testify that toward the end of the altercation, Sherman let go of her and headed toward their bedroom in the back of the house. She attempted to testify as to a threat made by Sherman against her life upon his letting her go and walking to the bedroom, but she was again stopped by the court. Sanders then stated that she followed Sherman to the bedroom in fear of her life and the lives of her children and on the way, she reached for the nearest weapon she could find – a pot of hot oil that she had heated on the stove to cook a late-night snack. Upon reaching the bedroom, Sanders testified that she found Sherman reaching for his gun and then turning to her with it. It was then that she tossed the pot of oil on him and fled from the house with her children.
The opinion then goes on to reveal something I didn't think I'd see: Steve Simpson refusing to instruct the jury that there is no duty to retreat in Mississippi. That's right, Simpson thumbed his nose at the Castle Doctrine. Not only did he refuse to allow the jury to consider the Castle Doctrine, Simpson allowed the prosecution to repeatedly Ms. Sanders about how she could have escaped the house rather than pursuing her husband as he went to get his gun. (Remember, the child he'd just been raping was still in the house.)
The opinion is remarkable reading for several reasons, not the least of which is that all nine Court of Appeals judges concurred in the reversal of a murder conviction. (Justice Leslie King had been called up to the Supreme Court, so there was a vacancy. Normally, our Court of Appeals has 10 judges.) The Court also invokes the plain error doctrine, which is rare. The plain error rule comes into play when the lower court's decisions were so egregious as to “seriously affect the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” (Page 13 of the opinion.)
I strongly recommend that folks read this opinion for several reasons. First, you need to know what types of decisions Steve Simpson made while on the bench. Second, it is a well-written primer on the Castle Doctrine, self-defense, and defense of others. Finally, it is an interesting insight into how things can go horribly wrong in trial and justice be perverted.