Assault: from the Canterbury Tales to the videotape

United States v. Watts, No. 14-2944 (7th Cir. Aug. 20, 2015).

The Wife of Bath, who would not have tolerated a violent man with a hatchet.

The Wife of Bath, who would not have tolerated a violent man with a hatchet.

Lavelle Watts, then a plaintiff in a civil rights trial against a police officer, was sitting in a federal courtroom in Chicago. When a defense verdict was announced, Watts picked up the large chair he was sitting on and threw it at the defendant police officer, injuring him. Watts was charged and convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon with intent to do bodily harm.

Watts requested, and received, an instruction on the lesser included crime of “simple assault.” Watts now challenges that instruction.

Judge Posner, in an interesting digression, distinguishes between assault and battery at common law, and includes a footnote on the first reported case of assault—from the middle of the 14th century—which involved a man asking for wine at the door of a closed tavern, and trying unsuccessfully to strike the landlady with a hatchet.

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit upholds the imperfect instructions that the district court gave the jury, largely because the court did not need to give the “simple assault” instruction at all. Because the scene of the crime was a courtroom, the assault was videotaped. Having seen the video, no reasonable jury could have acquitted Watts of assault with a dangerous weapon with intent to inflict bodily harm—the greater offense.