Reversal of Conviction Highlights Need for Defense Experts in Domestic Violence Cases

In re the Matter of Christopher Owens (2017)

by David S. Marshall

Christopher Owens has been granted a new trial by the Washington State Court of Appeals. The court decided that his trial was unfair because of the failure of his trial attorney to consult a domestic violence expert.

Growing Up with Domestic Violence

Owens lived in Wenatchee and worked at the Wenatchee Collision Center, his grandfather’s business. His mother Kellie also worked at the collision center, and the two were very close. Owens’s father left the family when Owens was three, so Kellie had raised her two boys on her own. Kellie’s luck with men was not good: some of her boyfriends turned out to be extremely abusive, and young Owens saw these men hurt his mother on a number of different occasions. As a result, the family felt a strong need to stick together and protect each other from outside violence.

In 2002, Kellie met Richard Tyler at her high school reunion. The two began a relationship, and Tyler moved into Kellie’s house. Over the years, Tyler grew increasingly hostile, aggressive, and eventually abusive. Kellie ended their relationship in 2008, but Tyler would not leave her alone. He continued to call and threaten her. Increasingly frightened of Tyler, Kellie obtained a restraining order against him in December of 2008 while he was out of town.

The Killing

Tyler was scheduled to return to Wenatchee on December 23, 2008. Kellie asked the police to serve Tyler with the protection order at the airport as soon as he arrived. She also asked Owens to be at her house on December 23 to protect her.

Despite the order, Tyler went to Kellie’s house after landing at the airport. He shook the front door and yelled for Kellie to let him in. Receiving no response, Tyler managed to enter her garage by forcing the overhead garage door, which Kellie had jammed shut to keep him out. He then got into the house itself through a door between the garage and the basement.

Kellie called 911 to report that Tyler was breaking into her home. Owens, concerned Tyler would become violent before help arrived, grabbed a gun and walked halfway down the stairs between the main floor and the foyer. He warned Tyler not to come up the stairs and that he had a gun. As Tyler walked up the stairs leading to a landing in the split-level house, Owens shot him twice, killing him.

Police arrived and found Tyler’s body on the stairs. Owens told them that he shot Tyler because he was certain his mother’s ex had come to assault or even kill her. Owens felt threatened by the fact Tyler had been told there was a protection order but came into the house and did not stop even when Owens warned him he had a gun.

Owens was arrested and later convicted of first degree murder.

Importance of a Domestic Violence Expert

The first attorney appointed to defend Owens recognized the need for an expert on domestic violence, and on his request the court authorized funds for such an expert. However, Owens’s substituted defense counsel decided not to move forward with finding an expert to evaluate Owens. Apparently, the second attorney was concerned the prosecutor might use such an expert’s report to show Owens had violent tendencies.

The appeals court found no reasonable strategic purpose in the second attorney’s failure to even consult a domestic violence expert. He faced no risk in such a consultation because any information obtained from Owens during the expert’s evaluation would have been shielded from opposing counsel by the work product privilege.

In preparing to challenge Owens’s conviction, his post-conviction attorney retained April Gerlock, Ph.D., an expert on the effects of domestic violence. Dr. Gerlock evaluated Owens in the context of his relationship with his mother, his childhood, and the case. She concluded:

Owens’s belief that he needed to engage in self-defense behaviors was a reasonable response to the escalating situation leading up to December 23, 2008. His fear that Mr. Tyler might physically or sexually assault or kill his mother is also reasonable based on his awareness of Mr. Tyler’s prior behaviors and bold actions in ignoring Kellie’s clear message that he was not to come over and was not to come in her home. Owens shared his mother’s terror and described that fear and terror to the responding detective.

The Court of Appeals’s Conclusion

Because the fundamental issue at Owens’s trial was the reasonableness of Owens’s fear, the court of appeals reasoned, a domestic violence expert was essential to help the jury understand his fear. Most people do not have psychological training on the effects of domestic violence. Jurors might have had trouble accepting Owens’s perception, as a consequence of the long-term abuse, that he needed to use lethal force. According to Dr. Gerlock, the memories of that abuse contributed to his belief that lethal force was necessary to defend his mother and himself the afternoon of the homicide. A domestic violence expert was especially important in Owens’s case in light of the State’s attempts at trial to minimize Owens and Kellie’s fears, claiming these fears were unreasonable and “not rooted in any facts.”

Given the amount of domestic violence evidence in Owens’s case, the court determined that “the failure to consult and have a domestic violence expert testify” at trial required reversing Owens’s conviction and granting him a new trial.