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142913 - People v Reese (Verdell)

The People of the State of Michigan,
Timothy A. Baughman
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
(Wayne – Berry, A.)
Verdell Reese,
Valerie R. Newman


​Verdell Reese was charged with second-degree murder. At a bench trial – a trial where a judge, rather than a jury, makes findings of fact – Reese was found guilty of manslaughter, as well as being a felon in possession of a firearm and committing a felony with a firearm. The trial judge found that Reese and the victim, Leonardo Johnson, were arguing over a debt, and that Reese fired first at Johnson from a vehicle as Johnson walked toward his home. The two then exchanged words; Johnson shot at Reese, who fired more shots at Johnson, and Johnson was shot to death by Reese, the trial judge found. The trial court then determined that Reese “did not act in lawful self- defense” and was “clearly . . . the aggressor” finding that Reese “fired the first shot prompting Mr. Johnson to be on guard, prompting Mr. Johnson to pull his weapon on you, prompting you then to pull your weapon on him and no question, this was a shoot-out.” The trial court opined that Reese would have been entitled to a claim of self-defense if he had “backed off … and made peace.” The judge ruled that the prosecution had not proved a case of second-degree murder, but instead convicted Reese of manslaughter, saying that the lesser charge was justified by the doctrine of “imperfect self-defense.” Reese was sentenced, as a third habitual offender, to eight to 30 years in prison for the manslaughter conviction and to one to five years for being a felon in possession of a firearm, to follow the mandatory two-year sentence for the felony-firearm conviction.

Reese appealed, contending in part that the judge should not have found him guilty of manslaughter in light of his self-defense claim. In an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed Reese’s convictions for being a felon-in-possession and for felony-firearm, but remanded for a new trial on the manslaughter count. The court held that it could not reconcile the evidence with the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to imperfect self-defense. Among other matters, the appellate panel noted the “paucity of the evidence” as to whether Reese actually fired first: “The evidence indicates the initial firing of two shots in an unknown direction and by an unknown individual before the face-to-face confrontation between Reese and Johnson.” The Court of Appeals explained that imperfect self-defense is a qualified defense, mitigating second-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter; imperfect self-defense applies only where the defendant would have been entitled to self-defense had he not been the initial aggressor. The Court of Appeals questioned the trial court’s labeling of Reese as the aggressor, and criticized the trial court for failing to address Reese’s state of mind when he initiated the confrontation, noting that Reese would not be able to invoke the doctrine of imperfect self-defense if the circumstances indicated that he initiated the confrontation with the intent to kill or do great bodily harm. The Court of Appeals concluded that it could not state with confidence that the trial judge’s factual findings or conclusions of law were sufficient to sustain Reese’s manslaughter conviction. The prosecutor appeals.