A fatal shooting over the weekend has generated much discussion on our web site’s comment threads about when self defense is appropriate under the law. Here’s one opinion, from commenter robodrill:
“yes. washingtonians are allowed to shoot fleeing attackers.
if the guy’s story is true, he is innocent.”
I thought it’d be good to consult a lawyer who knows first hand how self defense works in court. Here to give us his analysis — free of any scrutinizing of the current case — is frequent Crime and Justice blog contributor and Bremerton attorney Stan Glisson:
“The statute (9A.16.020) tells us that force is not unlawful “Whenever used by a party about to be injured, or by another lawfully aiding him or her, in preventing or attempting to prevent an offense against his or her person, or a malicious trespass, or other malicious interference with real or personal property lawfully in his or her possession, in case the force is not more than is necessary”.
Homicide, specifically, is justified in the eyes of the law when committed either:
(1) In the lawful defense of the slayer, or his or her husband, wife, parent, child, brother, or sister, or of any other person in his presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished; or
(2) In the actual resistance of an attempt to commit a felony upon the slayer, in his presence, or upon or in a dwelling, or other place of abode, in which he is. (9A.16.050).
Anyone accused of an assault-type crime can assert that it was done in defense of themselves, of others, or of their property. Once the defendant raises self defense, the burden shifts to the state to disprove it; in other words, lack of self defense becomes an element the state has to prove. In general, there is no duty to retreat. The defendant can resort to use of force in self defense as long as the defendant had a legal right to be in the place where force was used. Also, a defendant cannot claim self defense if the defendant created the situation that cause the need for defense. In other words, a person can’t provoke a fight, then claim he or she needed to use force in self defense.
Self defense is a complete defense because it negates the element of intent. It is a dangerous defense, because the accused basically waives any defense that they didn’t commit the crime: instead, they are arguing that it was justified. You can’t simultaneously argue ‘I didn’t do it’ and ‘I only did it because..’
If a defendant succeeds in presenting self defense, it is possible to recover from the charging entity (state or city) all costs they incurred as a result of the charge. That can be attorney’s fees, lost wages, etc. Basically the jury has said that what they did was permissible, so they should not have had to incur those costs.
The fear of injury justifying self defense is evaluated in terms of the subjective experience of the defendant. The court must instruct the jury to evaluate the claim of self defense in light of all the circumstances known to the defendant. Jurors are instructed to place themselves in the defendant’s shoes at the time of the alleged crime, considering what he was experiencing and what was known to him about the victim at the time. So, if there is past knowledge that makes the shooter’s decision more or less understandable, the jury is entitled to hear about that. That can result in the trial being a lot more about the prior history of the victim than would normally be allowed in a trial.
Self defense is a tricky thing. The defendant needs to have ‘clean hands’ for the jury to sympathize with his or her position. They have to relate to why he or she felt that there was no other reasonable option. And the more force was used, the more the jury has to agree with that decision. The defendant’s testimony is very important, as is the perception of the seriousness of the danger they were facing.”