COLUMBIA — A 2007 murder case will finally come to trial Monday, but the central question that delayed it hasn’t been resolved.
The question is whether Missouri law requires that a threat be imminent for deadly force to be justified as self-defense. The answer could affect what evidence can be presented about the victim’s alleged history of violence.
The victim was Jeremy Bohannon, 32, of Rocheport. He was shot to death at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 2, 2007, in the parking lot of the McDonald’s on Clark Lane, where he’d gone for a supervised visit with his three children.
His children never showed up. According to court documents, his former brother-in-law, William Clinch, 39, was lying in wait and shot him several times in the head and in the leg.
Clinch pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the 13th Circuit Court for Boone County in December 2007. His defense appears likely to center on evidence that he acted in self-defense.
The judge who will preside over Clinch’s trial, Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, said he will wait until the trial to decide whether to instruct the jury to consider “imminence” when determining if Clinch is guilty of the charges. He also said he will “deal with” the victim’s alleged history of violence at trial.
That is vague enough to leave the question in play.
According to an order of protection Clinch obtained against Bohannon in June 2007, Clinch said he believed Bohannon was a serious threat to his sister, Amanda Clinch, and her three children, all of whom were under the age of 4.
Clinch stated in the document that he thought Bohannon meant to hurt him and talked about a fight between his sister and Bohannon in which Bohannon threatened Clinch, saying he would “rip his head off.”
“I think he may try to kill me, my sister, my parents and his children,” Clinch wrote in the court document.
Amanda Clinch also sought an order of protection against Bohannon in September 2006, the same month she separated from him.
Amanda Clinch said Bohannon threatened her and beat their three young children. “He is a dangerous person and I am very afraid he will kill or seriously injure my babies,” she wrote.
Clinch’s father, Dennis Clinch, also filed a protection order, stating Bohannon verbally threatened him and that the threats prompted him to move the family out of Howard County.
Clinch’s new defense team, Boone County Public Defenders Jennifer Bukowsky and Paul Hood, wants the jury to hear this evidence.
But not everyone believes the validity of those protection orders. Howard County Sheriff Charles Polson previously told the Missourian that the Clinch family would constantly call 911 “trying to get (Bohannon) into trouble.”
“The man who shot him was more obsessed with getting (Bohannon) in trouble than the wife was,” Polson said in a previous interview with the Missourian. He said William Clinch made most of the calls to law enforcement.
Attorney Gregory Robinson, who represented Bohannon in a violation of an order of protection case, previously told the Missourian that Amanda Clinch abused the system, making Bohannon's “life a living hell.”
Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight said evidence of Bohannon's character should be excluded because it could cause the jury to misunderstand the self-defense statute. His argument is that it does not matter what might have happened down the road because in order for an act to be considered self-defense, the threat against the defendant must be imminent.
Michael Byrne, Clinch's public defender at the time he was first set to go on trial, said his argument was that the self-defense statute does not require imminence in certain cases – death, serious physical injury or forcible felony – but "only a reasonable belief that one of these things is going to occur.”
In other words, if a person reasonably believes any forcible felony will occur in the future, he or she has a right to self-defense; imminence is not required.
On the morning of Jan. 27, 2009, when Clinch's trial was scheduled to begin, the matter was unresolved. Knight asked Boone County Circuit Court Judge Gene Hamilton whether he would include the word “imminent” with the word “threat” in the jury instruction, a statement a judge gives the jury about the laws pertaining to the case.
When Hamilton said he would not, Knight dropped the charges against Clinch. He then filed them again the same day.
Byrne wrote in a motion that the prosecution should not be allowed to perform such blatant “judge shopping.”
“The State dismissed this case solely because the State did not like an evidentiary ruling made by the Division 1 trial judge," Byrne wrote.
Knight previously told the Missourian he dropped the charges because the judge’s interpretation of the self-defense statute significantly damaged his case.
Jury selection begins Friday in Lafayette County. The trial will begin Monday, but what Oxenhandler will do remains an unknown.