ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — A man should have been allowed to explore a defense that he was protecting another person before he pleaded guilty in the choking death of a man in an Atlantic City motel room, a state appeals court ruled in overturning his manslaughter conviction.
The ruling published Tuesday ordered a new trial for 37-year-old Anwar Belton.
Belton has been serving a 12-year sentence for aggravated manslaughter in the death of Victor Castillo of New York in 2010.
According to court documents, Belton was summoned by a female acquaintance who entered his motel room and said Castillo had robbed her. Belton said he put Castillo in a headlock when Castillo began biting the woman on the hand and refused to stop.
Belton was initially charged with murder but agreed to plead guilty to aggravated manslaughter. During his plea to the court, Belton described the altercation.
Like self-defense, defense of others is an affirmative defense that can exonerates a defendant if he or she can demonstrate an “honest, actual, and reasonable — but not necessarily accurate — belief that force is necessary,” the court ruled.
A lower court denied Belton’s initial appeal and wrote that biting someone’s hand didn’t pose a risk of serious bodily harm and wouldn’t justify the use of deadly force.
The appeals court disagreed, writing that Belton only needed to believe deadly force was necessary to protect against serious bodily harm.
It also ruled Belton’s raising the idea that he was defending others amounted to a claim of innocence, negating his guilty plea.
“Inasmuch as the trial court failed to explore defendant’s claimed defense, and failed to secure a knowing and intelligent waiver after an appropriate explication of applicable law, it cannot be said his plea was voluntary and knowing, and violated due process,” the three-judge panel wrote.
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