The most severe type of assault in Alabama is assault first. This crime is a class B felony, and the range of punishment for a first offense is from 2 to 20 years in prison.
This crime requires that a victim suffered serious physical injury, and it can occur in any of the following five ways:
(a) A person commits the offense of assault in the first degree if:
(1) With intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he or she causes serious bodily injury to any person using a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument; or
(2) With intent to disfigure another person seriously and permanently, or to destroy, amputate, or disable permanently a member or organ of the body of another person, he or she causes such an injury to any person; or
(3) Under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, he or she recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes serious physical injury to any person; or
(4) In the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempted commission of arson in the first degree, burglary in the first or second degree, escape in the first degree, kidnapping in the first degree, rape in the first degree, robbery in any degree, sodomy in the first degree, or any other felony clearly dangerous to human life, or of immediate flight therefrom, he or she causes a serious physical injury to another person; or
(5) While driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance or any combination thereof in violation of Section 32-5A-191 or 32-5A-191.3, he or she causes serious physical injury to the person of another with a vehicle or vessel.
(b) Assault in the first degree is a Class B felony.
Defenses to the crime of Assault in the First Degree
There are a variety of defenses that apply to the crime of assault, first. Some of these are complete defenses to the crime, which, if successful, would result in a not guilty verdict. Others are what I would call a partial defense: in these instances, the lawyer is not saying that the client is entirely innocent, only that the crime was less severe than assault, first.
1. Self-defense and defense of others.
Under Alabama law, you have a right to use reasonable force to protect yourself or even another person from what you reasonably believe to be the imminent use of unlawful physical force by another person. However, you can only use reasonable force. In other words, you can't use an elephant gun against an ant. The critical issue in a self-defense claim is whether or not the force used was reasonable under the circumstances.
So let's give an example. Hank is shaking his fist Frank and yelling that he's going to beat the stuffing out of Frank. Hank is standing at the farthest end of a football field while he yells at Frank, who is at the other end. Frank cannot pull out a handgun and shoot Hank under these circumstances because this would be considered an unreasonable use of force under the circumstances. On the other hand, if Hank pulled out a handgun from the same distance and was threatening to kill Frank, it is far more likely that, if Frank shoots him, Frank's actions would be considered to be reasonable self-defense.
Alabama also does not require a person to retreat; this is often referred to as stand your ground laws. If Hank is approaching Frank and Hank is threatening Frank with a butcher knife, Frank does not have a duty to retreat. Alabama differs from some states in this regard. In some states, states a person has an obligation to try to retreat.
Self-defense can either be raised in a pretrial motion by a lawyer or it can be presented during the trial. If a motion is filed before the trial hearing would be conducted to determine if the accused person reasonably used self-defense. If the judge agrees, t it is a bar for further prosecution, and the case is over. As a matter of strategy, some lawyers will choose not to do this and wait until the evidence is presented at trial and raise the issue to a jury. There are a number as a variety of reasons; lawyers choose to do this. They may feel that the particular judge is unlikely to grant their motion, and they may not want the prosecution to have a pretrial opportunity to cross-examine their client. They may want to wait until additional evidence is heard during the trial before they determine whether or not they wish to raise this issue.
Sometimes the issue is not whether or not a person was assaulted but whether or not the accused person is the one who did the assault. For example, in a barroom brawl, it may not be clear who committed the actual assault. Witnesses for the state may not be able to provide clear and credible evidence, and there may be conflicting evidence that supports the defendant's claim that he is not the responsible party.
A person may be responsible for injury to the other party but, they may have been lacking in criminal intent. Once again, an example may help. Hank and Frank are working on a farm together. Hank is cutting some wood with a chainsaw. Hank and Frank are not friends. Frank is holding a log while Hank is cutting it with the chainsaw. Hank cuts off Frank's hand.
Would Hank be guilty of assault first? The jury would need to determine if Frank did so intentionally. If the jury was not convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Hank acted intentionally, Hank would be found not guilty. Hank's lawyer would probably have it was an accident under these circumstances.
Lack of intent is frequently raised as a defense in assault first charges. Sometimes it can be a complete defense; at other times, it may only be a partial defense, meaning the accused may be convicted of a lesser degree of assault.
4. Defense of property.
In some instances, a person can use physical force to defend their property. Alabama considers a man's home his castle. Thus if you are at home minding your own business and Bob the burglar breaks into your house, you would have a defense if you were to use physical force against him. Be aware, every case is judged on its merits, and the defense of property is not always an absolute defense as it would depend on the circumstances of the case. Defense of one's home or dwelling typically would not apply to other forms of property; thus, if somebody is trespassing on your land, that does not give you grounds to shoot them.
5. Lack of injury or insufficient proof of injury.
The crime of assault first requires "serious physical injury." What is a serious physical injury under Alabama law?
Alabama defines "serious physical injury" as a physical injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes serious and protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ.
In some assault cases, the issue is whether or not the injury meets the legal definition of "serious physical injury." Typically this is what I would refer to as a "partial" defense. In other words, if this is the only defense raised, it may mean that the accused person is not guilty of first-degree assault, but, they still could be found guilty of some other degree of assault. Of course, this defense can be raised with other defenses.
6. Mental health defenses
If someone is suffering from a mental disease or defect to the extent they cannot be held legally accountable for their actions, this can serve as a defense in an assault. A somewhat related issue is whether or not the person is even competent to stand trial. Under Alabama law, if a person is not competent to stand trial and if they cannot be restored to competency, the case cannot go forward. If a person is competent to proceed to trial but, at the time of the offense, they were suffering from some sort of mental disease or defect that impacted their ability to understand right from wrong, this can be raised as a defense.
7. Time-or "justice delayed".
While not an actual defense, it is not uncommon for defense lawyers to intentionally drag a case on for as long as they can. The reason for this is that the delay often serves to the benefit of the person accused. That's because witnesses forget, move away, or simply don't care. I had a terrible case when I was a prosecutor where the defendant gouged out the victim's eye with the barrel of a gun. Not only did I want to prosecute this case, I wasn't willing to make any kind of generous offer given the circumstances. The defense delayed the case for quite some time. The case was delayed so long that it was reached after I had left the District Attorney's Office, and the defendant's original lawyer had died. By the time the case got to court, there was a new prosecutor and a new defense lawyer. The defendant won the case - he got away with gouging the other fellow's eye out. Why? Because the new prosecutor was unable to locate the victim.
So while "delay" may not be a recognized defense, it certainly can help the accused. Bear in mind this sword cuts both ways, however. For example, there might be a case in which there is a defense witness who could establish a claim of self-defense, but if the case is delayed a significant amount of time, that witness may move away or become otherwise unavailable.