Darrell Thurston and Suzanne Harmon were romantically involved on an intermittent basis for five years and had one child together. As a result of an altercation that took place at Harmon’s home in Sullivan, Maine, on September 27, 2007, between Thurston and Harmon, Thurston was charged with assault, criminal mischief, and obstructing report of crime or injury. The testimony during the trial illuminated the major factual differences between Thurston’s and Harmon’s accounts of the night the incident took place. Thurston requested a self defense jury instruction based on his version of what had happened, which the trial court ultimately denied. Following the jury trial, Thurston was found guilty of assault and criminal mischief. Thurston appealed the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court, and argued that in regard to the assault charge, the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to warrant a self defense jury instruction and that the trial court erred by failing to provide the instruction. In State v. Thurston the Law Court held that the evidence presented at trial did in fact generate a self-defense instruction, and because the trial court refused to give the instruction, the Law Court vacated Thurston’s assault conviction. Justice Gorman, on behalf of the majority, reasoned that the evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to the defendant, warranted a self-defense instruction. The majority took a detailed look at the “he said, she said” stories proffered by Thurston and Harmon. Ultimately, the majority decided that because the complaint did not specify which of Thurston’s actions constituted the assault, the jury was free to accept his recitation of the facts and, in doing so, could reasonably come to the conclusion that he only grabbed Harmon once—after she picked up a knife and threatened him. The majority also directly countered the dissent’s interpretation of Maine’s criminal trespass statute, and contended that based on the facts, Thurston was licensed and privileged to be in the home, and therefore any actions by Thurston—lawful or unlawful—did not automatically justify Harmon’s use of force. Justice Alexander, writing for the dissent, interpreted the evidence differently. Unlike the majority, the dissent focused on the fact that Harmon did not invite Thurston into her home—in fact, she explicitly told him not to come to her home on the night in question. Justice Alexander reasoned that because Thurston had no right to be in the home, Harmon was justified in using force to eject him, and any actions she took to remove Thurston were lawful. As such, the dissent held that a self-defense instruction, which is only available to individuals acting in defense of unlawful force, was not warranted for Thurston, and therefore would have affirmed Thurston’s assault conviction. The Thurston decision turned on the court’s evaluation of two main factors— the testimony of Thurston and Harmon regarding their relationship, and, in turn, whether or not Thurston was licensed and privileged to enter Harmon’s home that night. While the majority opinion does provide an opinion which is founded on Maine case law, the analysis surrounding the issue of trespass as it relates to individuals in domestic relationships creates a broad and ambiguous standard for determining whether someone is licensed and privileged to be in their partner’s home. The majority failed to draw a clear line regarding the types of factors (verbal cues, specific living arrangements, or expense sharing, etc.) that they felt would be sufficient to give an individual license and privilege to enter a domestic partner’s home. The dissenting opinion, however, placed more emphasis on the initial factual inquiry—whether Thurston was lawfully in the home. The dissent’s opinion maintained a higher standard of the facts that must be in place to give someone license and privilege to be in a domestic partner’s home. While Maine law is far from settled regarding the “licensed and privileged” status in domestic relationships, the dissenting opinion provides a more cautious and logical approach to interpreting precarious domestic altercations.
Megan E. Magoon,
State v. Thurston: An Examination of Assualt, Self-Defense, and Trespass in Relation to Domestic Violence,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol62/iss2/19