Although the terms “assault” and “battery” are often used together, the fact is that they represent two separate crimes in West Virginia. A person commits assault when he or she “attempts to use physical force capable of causing physical pain or injury.” Battery, on the other hand, happens when the person actually makes physical contact with another with enough force to cause pain or injury. Cases involving fights often include both charges. As West Virginia’s Supreme Court recently explained, however, a person can be found guilty of battery without also being found guilty of assault.
Mr. Cleveland was arrested and charged with malicious assault and simple battery following a fight outside a bar in Monongalia County in which he admittedly twice stabbed another man with a knife. He pleaded not guilty and claimed that he was using self-defense at the time of the fight. Following trial, a jury found that Cleveland wasn’t guilty of the assault but convicted him on the misdemeanor battery charge. Cleveland later sought to have the verdict thrown out, arguing that he couldn’t be guilty of battery if the jury had found that he’d acted in self-defense on the assault charge. The trial court disagreed and refused to grant an acquittal.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Supreme Court first said appeals courts are typically without the power to review a jury verdict based on the argument that it’s inconsistent. Even if the Court was authorized to hear Cleveland’s appeal, however, it found that the assault and battery verdicts weren’t necessarily inconsistent. Once a defendant raises reasonable doubt as to whether he was acting in self-defense, it’s up to prosecutors to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense. Here, the Court said the prosecution may have met that burden but still failed to prove that Cleveland committed an assault during the fight.
“Petitioner’s argument is based on the unsupported premise that the jury acquitted him of malicious assault and unlawful assault based upon his affirmative defense of self-defense,” the Court explained. “The jury could have concluded that the prosecution rebutted the presumption that petitioner did not act in self-defense, but that the State only proved beyond a reasonable doubt that petitioner was guilty of battery.”
As a result, the Supreme Court allowed the battery conviction to stand.
The distinction between assault and battery may seem like a small one, but it can play a big role in how much time a person accused of either or both crimes spends behind bars. If you’re facing these or other criminal charges, it’s vital that you seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney who can advise you of your rights and options and build the strongest possible defense before trial. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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