A person accused of a violent crime can legitimately claim that the violence was necessary for self-defense. A legitimate self-defense claim legally justifies an acquittal.
In what kinds of cases can I argue self-defense?
Self-defense is a possible defense when the defendant is charged with a violent crime. Typical crimes include:
battery (striking someone against his or her will)
assault with a deadly weapon
assault with intent to commit serious bodily injury
first or second degree murder
Do I have to admit that I struck the so-called victim in order to use a self-defense argument?
Yes. Inherent in the concept of self-defense is that the defendant did strike the alleged victim. The defense asserts that the striking was legally justified because the "victim" who was struck was in actuality the attacker, and was necessary to prevent the defendant from being physically harmed. Thus, the basic issue in many self-defense cases boils down to, "Who started it?" An important secondary issue is whether the defendant's violence was a proportionate and necessary response.
Can I claim self-defense if I hit someone before they hit me?
Yes. If a reasonable person would think that physical harm is in the immediate offing, the defendant can use force to prevent the attack. People do not have to wait until they are actually struck to act in self-defense.
How much force can I use in self-defense?
A defendant can use reasonable force in self-defense. How much force is reasonable depends on the circumstances of each situation - particularly the amount of force a supposed victim is using against the defendant. A defendant who acts in self-defense, but who uses more force than is necessary for self-protection, is still guilty of a crime (anything from simple assault to murder, depending on how disproportionate the force is).
The Menendez Case - A Famous Case of Imperfect Self-Defense
Some states allow a partial defense known as "imperfect self-defense." This defense reduces the charges of defendants who use force because they honestly (but mistakenly) believe that they are under attack.
In a highly publicized California case, the Menendez brothers were charged with murder for brutally killing their wealthy parents, and they relied on imperfect self-defense at trial. The brothers claimed that they killed their parents because the father had been so abusive in the past that they honestly (though incorrectly) believed that their father was planning to kill them. Had the jury accepted the brothers' imperfect self-defense, it would have reduced the crime to manslaughter. The first trial ended in a hung jury. The Menendez brothers were convicted of murder after a second trial and sentenced to life in prison.
If I argue self-defense, do I have to convince the judge or jury that I was justified in my action?
No. A defendant who offers self-defense evidence does not have to convince the judge or jury that he or she was justified in using force. The burden remains on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's use of force was not justified. However, to raise the defense in the first place, the defendant has to produce some evidence that supports his self-defense theory.
Using Self-Defense to Expand the Scope of Admissible Evidence
Self-defense can make some evidence admissible that would not be admissible in the absence of the defense. For example, witnesses cannot ordinarily testify to rumors. But a defendant who claims self-defense can testify to any information that led the defendant to reasonably believe that the use of force was necessary. If one factor in that belief was a rumor as to the violent tendencies of the victim, the defendant can probably testify to the rumor.
If I claim that the supposed victim of my assault attacked me first, will I be allowed to offer evidence showing that the attacker had been violent in the past?
Yes. Defendants can support a self-defense claim with evidence that a supposed victim was prone to violence. Of course, it's open to the prosecution to produce evidence that the supposed victim was not prone to violence. Some states (such as California) go beyond this, and also allow the prosecution to offer evidence of the defendant's past history of violence. In these states, defendants have to think carefully before offering evidence of a supposed victim's violent past.
Battered Wife Syndrome
Traditionally, self-defense arises when defendants protect themselves against contemporaneous attacks. In a modern variation, women have argued that they acted in self-defense when they have struck or even killed their male spouses or partners - even though their partners or spouses were not then attacking them. (For example, a woman might strike her partner or spouse while he is sleeping.)
Many states now extend self-defense to these situations. These states authorize judges and juries to find that women have acted in self-defense when their male partners' or spouses' history of physical, sexual, and/or mental abuse has reasonably put the women in fear of serious harm or death in the near future. Many states also allow women to support their self-defense claims with testimony from psychological experts who testify to the characteristics of battered wife syndrome.