Wisconsin Supreme Court Grants New Trial in State of Wisconsin v. Alan M. Johnson | FREE WHITEWATER
FREE WHITEWATER

Wisconsin Supreme Court Grants New Trial in State of Wisconsin v. Alan M. Johnson

Alan M. Johnson was convicted in Walworth County of first-degree reckless homicide in the death of his brother-in-law. (Johnson’s late brother-in-law is identified in today’s high court opinion as ‘K.M.’ The events of the case took place in Whitewater, and the Walworth County trial was before Circuit Judge Kristine Drettwan.)

Johnson appealed his conviction, and the Court of Appeals granted him a new trial (State v. Johnson, 2020 WI App 50, ¶52, 393 Wis. 2d 688, 948 N.W.2d 377).

Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed in part, and in reversed part, the Court of Apeals decision, finding that

¶2 Three issues are presented for our review. First, did the circuit court err in failing to instruct the jury on perfect self-defense? Second, did the circuit court err in failing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of second-degree reckless homicide? And finally, did the circuit court err in precluding Johnson from offering evidence regarding what he found on K.M.’s computer the night of K.M.’s death? The court of appeals ruled in Johnson’s favor on all three questions.

¶3 We agree the circuit court erred in failing to instruct the jury on perfect self-defense and second-degree reckless homicide. When determining whether these instructions should be provided, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant, and the instruction must be provided if evidence is presented from which a reasonable jury could find in the defendant’s favor on the instructed elements. The evidence presented at trial was sufficient to satisfy this low evidentiary bar. We affirm the decision of the court of appeals on these grounds and remand for a new trial.

¶4 However, we conclude the circuit court properly exercised its discretion in precluding Johnson from testifying regarding what he found on K.M.’s computer that night. The circuit court concluded this other-acts evidence was not relevant, and even if it was, the probative value of the evidence would be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. While another court might see it differently, this was a permissible and reasonable conclusion, particularly since Johnson was permitted to testify regarding why he was at K.M.’s house and that he “found” what he was looking for. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals on this ground.

(State of Wisconsin v. Alan M. Johnson, 2021 WI 61. Citations omitted. ‘Perfect’ self-defense under Wisconsin law is a self-defense claim that serves as a full – and so complete, or perfect – defense to a homicide charge. Wis. Stat. § 939.48(1). If successful, a perfect self-defense claim would defeat, rather than merely reduce to a lower degree, the homicide charge.)

The full opinion of the court appears below, subject to revision before final publication. There is, one finds, no aspect of the case that tragedy hasn’t touched —

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