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State v. Villacci

Supreme Court of Maine

June 19, 2018

STATE OF MAINE
v.
WESLEY M. VILLACCI

          Argued: June 13, 2018

          Rory A. McNamara, Esq. (orally), Drake Law, LLC, Berwick, for appellant Wesley Villacci.

          Andrew S. Robinson, District Attorney, and Claire G. Andrews, Asst. Dist. Atty. (orally), Prosecutorial District III, Lewiston, for appellee State of Maine.

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          GORMAN, J.

         [¶1] Wesley M. Villacci appeals from a judgment of conviction of domestic violence assault (Class C), 17-A M.R.S. § 207-A(1)(B)(1) (2017), and violating a condition of release (Class E), 15 M.R.S. § 1092(1)(A) (2017), entered by the trial court (Franklin County, Mallonee, /.) after a jury trial. Villacci argues that the court erred by failing to fully instruct the jury on the State's burden to disprove the statutory justifications Villacci generated in defense of the charges or on the consequences of the State's failure to meet that burden. We vacate the judgment.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] Viewing the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to the State, the jury rationally could have found the following facts beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v.Jeskey, 2016 ME 134, ¶ 30, 146 A.3d 127. In 2015, Villacci and the victim began an intimate relationship. During a disagreement on October 1, 2016, Villacci hit the victim on her face, grabbed her by her hair and banged her head on the dashboard and side window of the vehicle he was driving, pushed her into the passenger side door, and kicked her. The vehicle went off the road and crashed into some trees; after exiting the vehicle, Villacci again hit the victim's head hard enough that her "vision went black" and she dropped to the ground, whereupon Villacci continued hitting and kicking her. When Villacci and the victim later reached the victim's home, Villacci slapped the victim, punched her, pushed her into a wall and onto the ground, and placed his hands around the victim's throat and strangled her until she passed out. Villacci then began hitting and pushing the victim again.

         [¶3] Villacci assaulted the victim on multiple other occasions between October of 2016 and January of 2017—at least once per week and sometimes daily—by strangling her until she almost passed out; kicking her; hitting her; biting her; holding her face down in the snow; and slapping her face with an open palm, giving her a bloody nose. On one occasion in November of 2016, Villacci ripped the towel off the victim after she exited the shower, whipped her with the towel, pushed her head into a wall, pulled her down the hall by her hair, and hit her with a broom handle. On another occasion in January of 2017, Villacci pushed the victim onto a table and held her there face-down while he punched her on her back and arms. The victim suffered bruises, abrasions, soreness, ringing in her ear, bite marks, and other injuries as a result of these incidents.

         [¶4] By criminal complaint filed on January 6, 2017, and then by indictment filed on May 18, 2017, Villacci was charged with aggravated assault (Class B), 17-A M.R.S. § 208(1) (C) (2017); domestic violence assault (Class C), 17-A M.R.S. §207-A(1)(B)(1); and violating a condition of release (Class E), 15 M.R.S. § 1092(1)(A). He pleaded not guilty to all counts.

         [¶5] The court conducted a jury trial on September 13 and 14, 2017. Villacci testified about, and his defense relied in large part on, the application of four statutory justifications: (1) self-defense, see 17-A M.R.S. § 108 (2017); (2) defense of premises, see 17'-A M.R.S. § 104 (2017); (3) defense of property, see 17-A M.R.S. § 105 (2017); and (4) consent, see 17-A M.R.S. § 109 (2017).

         [¶6] In its jury instructions, the court described the elements of aggravated assault and domestic violence assault by tracking the language of the applicable statutes and then further defining various terms used in those statutes. See 17-AM.R.S. §§ 35(1)-(3), 207-A(1)(B)(1), 208(1)(C) (2017); 19-A M.R.S. § 4002(4) (2017). In other portions of the jury instructions, the court stated that "[t]he State always has the burden to prove each element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt" and that "[y]our only interest is to determine whether the State has proved the pending charge beyond a reasonable doubt."

         [¶7] With the State's agreement that there was sufficient evidence to generate a jury instruction on each of the four justifications, the court also instructed the jury on the elements of the justifications, again by tracking the applicable language of those statutes:

A person is justified in using a reasonable degree of nondeadly force upon another person in order to defend . . . the person or a third person from what the person reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful, nondeadly force by such other person, and the person may use a degree of such ...

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