By statute, a person is justified in the use of deadly force if the person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. The statute is declaratory of the common law, under which a person attacked under certain circumstances could, to protect himself or herself, take the life of the assailant and excuse himself or herself on the ground of self-defense. The question of justifiable self-defense is ordinarily a question for the jury.
Case Scenario: The defendant presented evidence, during a second-degree murder trial, that the victim attempted to commit an aggravated battery upon him and, thus, was entitled to a self-defense instruction on justifiable use of deadly force while he resisted an aggravated battery attempt, rather than an instruction only on the use of justifiable force while resisting a murder attempt; the defendant’s girlfriend testified that she observed the defendant and the victim locked arm-to-arm fighting and struggling.
Self-defense is a plea in the nature of a confession and avoidance. The defendant admits the act but seeks to justify it in that it was necessary to save him- or herself from death or great bodily harm. Where homicide is committed by accident or misfortune it is excusable; where committed in self-defense it is justifiable. Also, if there are circumstances which amount to a partial justification under a theory of self-defense, the degree of guilt may be reduced from murder to manslaughter.
Caution: Imperfect self-defense is not a cognizable defense to the use of deadly force; the statute requires a reasonable belief in the necessity to use deadly force.
Case Scenario on Self Defense: Threats
Mere words, however abusive, profane, or insulting, do not furnish justification for a killing sufficient to support a claim of self-defense. However, there may be justification where a person threatens another and the threats are accompanied by overt actions which, when coupled with such threats, induce a reasonable, honest, and actual belief of imminent danger and that the person threatened will lose his or her life or suffer serious bodily harm if he or she does not immediately take the life of his or her adversary. A prima facie case of self-defense may be made out by the defendant’s direct testimony concerning the victim’s threats and menacing approach, together with the defendant’s assertion that he or she was in fear of his or her life, where the State presents no evidence to rebut the defendant’s direct testimony and is unable to diminish his or her testimony on cross-examination.
Case senario: Defense counsel should have been allowed to cross-examine a detective as to the entire context of the defendant’s statement, where in a manslaughter prosecution the detective testified that the defendant told the detective upon his arrest that he had hit the victim with a stick, and defense counsel wished to cross-examine the detective as to the defendant’s subsequent formal statement in which the defendant stated that he hit the victim only after the victim threatened to set dogs on the defendant and only after the victim hit him.
No justification such as will support a defense of self-defense may be found where an apparent threat of immediate harm does not exist, or where it has passed.
Observation: The courts view with disfavor any theory of self-defense which tends to hold the life of a human being at the mercy of the cowardice or caprice of one whose easily awakened fear prompts him or her, when armed with a deadly weapon, to strike on what at most may be called a hostile demonstration on the part of the deceased.