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Commonwealth v. Caudill

Supreme Court of Kentucky

February 15, 2018

COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY APPELLANT
v.
BILLY REED CAUDILL APPELLEE

         ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2014-CA-001095-MR WOLFE CIRCUIT COURT NO. 13-CR-00004

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Perry Thomas Ryan Assistant Attorney General

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Susan Jackson Balliet. Assistant Public Advocate

          OPINION

          KELLER, JUSTICE

         Appellee, Billy Reed Caudill (Caudill), was tried before a jury in Wolfe Circuit Court on the charges of murder and three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree. The jury acquitted Caudill of the murder charge, finding that he had acted in self-protection, but found him guilty of all three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment. The judge thereafter affixed his sentence at fifteen years, five years on each count to be run consecutively. ', Caudill appealed this judgment to the Court of Appeals, which reversed and vacated his conviction. Finding no reversible error in the judgment of the Wolfe Circuit Court, we reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstate the trial court's judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The issue before this Court is purely procedural; however, to provide context to our decision, we give a brief recitation of the facts that led to the case before us.[1] Caudill lived adjacent to Randall Carpenter. Caudill and Carpenter seemed to have a tumultuous relationship due to legal troubles between their families. Shirley Hudson and Willena White also lived near Caudill and Carpenter.

         On August 21, 2009, Hudson and White, saw Caudill arid Carpenter in a heated argument. Caudill had a long assault rifle and Carpenter was on his tractor. Carpenter ultimately left the confrontation, driving away on his tractor and Caudill went back to his own trailer. A few hours later, Caudill walked across his property with his rifle at his side and he and Carpenter had another heated exchange.

         Later, Carpenter pulled his tractor into Hudson's driveway; Hudson, White, and Hudson's son, Michael, were present in the Hudson home. Carpenter told Hudson he was going to walk over to see what Caudill was doing. White heard Carpenter and Caudill shouting and cursing again. Both Hudson and White saw Caudill back up and remove his assault rifle from his truck. Testimony at trial conflicted as to who shot first and whether Carpenter had a gun at the beginning of the confrontation or not. It was undisputed that both Carpenter, armed with a 9 mm Glock, and Caudill, armed with his rifle, shot multiple times at each other. Caudill was shot twice but Carpenter was shot through the head, killing him immediately. Additionally, White, Hudson, and Michael were forced to take cover in the Hudson garage as bullets flew. Caudill claimed that his actions were justified in self-defense, alleging that Carpenter started shooting first.

         Caudill was first tried before a Breathitt County jury and convicted of murder and three counts of wanton endangerment, first degree (one count each for Hudson, White, and Michael). He was sentenced to 35 years. Upon appeal as a matter of right, this Court vacated and remanded Caudill's convictions. Specifically, we held that the prosecutor's actions while cross-examining Caudill constituted prosecutorial misconduct, requiring reversal. Caudill, 374 S.W.3d at 308-13.

         Caudill was retried before a jury in Wolfe Circuit Court. The jury acquitted Caudill of murder but did find him guilty, once again, of all three counts of wanton endangerment, first degree. He was sentenced to fifteen years total imprisonment. Caudill sought review by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals, sua sponte, held that the jury instructions required proof of an additional element in order to find Caudill guilty of wanton endangerment, first-degree. The Court held that it could not deem such error harmless (it should be noted that Caudill did not object to the instructions at issue or raise this issue in his appeal) and vacated the conviction, remanding it back for further proceedings.

         Based upon our review of the issue, we now reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstate the trial court's judgment.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Our review of alleged errors in jury instructions differs, depending upon the type of error alleged. When the error arises from giving an unwarranted instruction or failing to give a warranted instruction, we review the decision for abuse of discretion. Sargent v. Shaffer, 467 S.W.3d 198, 203 (Ky. 2015). However, when the error hinges on "whether the text of the instruction accurately presented the applicable legal theory, " we review the "content of a jury instruction" de novo. Id. at 204. Here, the error the Court ...


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