Her home is her castle: Conviction thrown out for NJ woman who killed fiance
TRENTON — A woman who was sentenced to seven years in prison in the shooting death of her fiancé in 2007 had her convictions thrown out Friday by an appellate decision that says the jury should have been instructed to consider the woman's right to self defense.
Ivelis Turell, now 39, was found guilty by a Mercer County jury in March 2013 of second-degree reckless manslaughter and second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. After a trial in which she claimed she was a victim of years of domestic violence, she was acquitted of the more serious charges of aggravated manslaughter and passion/provocation manslaughter.
The defense appealed, arguing that the judge made a mistake by not instructing the jurors to also consider self-defense for the lesser-included charges for which they ultimately convicted her.
The panel also found that the judge made a mistake in instructing the jury to consider whether Turell could have retreated instead of acting in self-defense.
The appellate panel's decision notes that a person's home "is accorded special treatment" in terms of self-defense. The requirement to retreat is suspended under the "castle doctrine" if the confrontation happens in a person's home and that person did not initiate the aggression.
Michael Whitaker was found dying from a gunshot wound, lying face down on the ground outside his home about 9 p.m. April 30, 2007. Police found his live-in girlfriend, Turell, sitting in the doorway with a gunshot wound on the side of her neck.
Court records show that Turell changed her story about what happened several times.
She first told police that their 6-year-old son had accidentally shot Whitaker while playing with the gun. She said that he dropped the gun, causing it to fire another round, which hit her.
At the hospital, Turell changed the story to say that she and Whitaker had been arguing about their son playing with the gun and that he choked her in front of the boy. She then grabbed the gun and pointed it at Whitaker, fired it and dropped it.
After Whitaker died at the hospital and Turell was read her Miranda rights, she provided a third version of events. She said Whitaker had threatened to abandon the family. During an argument, she said Whitaker grabbed his gun. She tried to grab it from him and it fired, striking his arm. She said Whitaker fell on the bed and later "ended up downstairs."
She said that as she was trying to call 911, she dropped the gun and it fired. She said she then decided to kill herself by shooting herself in the neck.
At trial, Turell's story changed again. She said she was often beaten by Whitaker during their four-year relationship, although she never filed charges against him.
Turell testified that on the night of the shooting, they argued and Whitaker choked her in front of their 2-year-old. He then locked her in the basement for half an hour, she said. After he let her out, she testified, she told him that he had to leave the home and went upstairs to pack his bags. She said that he grabbed his gun and pointed it at her. She says she pushed the gun away and struggled over it until it went off and shot him.
She testified that she shot herself in the shoulder because "she couldn't help him." She also testified that she did not remember telling police the previous versions of her story.
Whitaker's father testified that on the night of the shooting he received a call from his son. James Whitaker Jr. testified that his son's voice was trembling and that he was very upset. He says his son told him, "I got to get out of here ... I can't stay here ... can I come over and sleep on the couch?"
Whitaker's father said he could hear screaming and yelling in the background and heard Turell shout "You ain't going nowhere motherf*****."
The line went dead after a few minutes.
The trial judge argued that Turell had claimed that the gun went off accidentally, not in self-defense. But a three-judge panel on Friday disagreed, pointing out that Turell had testified that she was scared and that they had struggled over the gun.
New Jersey courts have held that a person who "kills in the honest and reasonable belief that the protection of his own life requires the use of deadly force" cannot be found guilty of murder, aggravated manslaughter or manslaughter. The trial judge is supposed to instruct the jury that self defense is a complete defense and that prosecutors have the burden of disproving self-defense.
Prosecutors will determine whether to bring Turell to trial on the charges of reckless manslaughter and weapons offenses. The decision comes one year before she would have been eligible for parole.
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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.