On Friday, May 3, 2013, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Jeffery Riggs’s capital murder conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial because the trial court failed to properly instruct the jury.
Jeffery Riggs was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the shooting death of his girlfriend during a heated argument in 2008. At trial, Mr. Riggs argued that the shooting took place after his girlfriend hit him in the eye and came at him with a knife, which would make him responsible for her death but guilty of manslaughter rather than capital murder. The judge failed to instruct the jury that “heat of passion” might change his degree of culpability, and he was convicted of capital murder. The jury returned a sentencing verdict of life imprisonment without parole, but the trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict and sentenced Mr. Riggs to death.
On appeal, EJI lawyers argued that the trial judge failed to accurately instruct the jury that the prosecution was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Riggs was not provoked to shoot his girlfriend by a sudden heat of passion. The State argued that Mr. Riggs did not present enough evidence to merit a jury instruction on provoked heat of passion.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals found that Mr. Riggs adequately “‘injected the issue of provoked heat of passion,'” by presenting evidence that he shot his girlfriend only after she hit him in the eye with a door and came after him with what he believed to be a knife. That evidence required “a proper instruction during the capital-murder charge regarding the State’s burden to disprove that he acted by provoked heat of passion,” the court concluded. It held that the trial court’s failure to give the proper instruction was plain error and ordered a new trial for Mr. Riggs.