When ‘Self Defence’ Results in Murder

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People are generally aware that self defence is about protecting yourself from a hostile by using whatever means you can manage. But from one case to another, questions and issues come up, such as: Did the person mean to hurt you physically or to threaten you with words? Did they have the intention to end your life? Was the force you used when defending yourself perhaps too much? Did you intend to cause them damage beyond your act of self defence? In the end, who was the more hostile of the two? And is there a way to really answer any of these subjective questions without the non-existing power of mind reading?

According to UK and to US self defence law a person is allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ when using self defence to defend themselves or someone else in danger. But what constitutes ‘reasonable force’? Perhaps this is too vague a concept, especially considering the fact that in such an adrenaline, fear and aggression filled situation where survival instincts kick in, people frequently feel out of control. Studies suggest that under such stress, it is natural for a person to have difficulty making sound decisions. Deeper exploration into the ‘Fight or Flight’ response educates that under excessive stress from perceived danger for their life, a person’s primitive and very much automatic body response is triggered – to defend themselves under any cost. And so, we have to wonder, where in such a case does ‘reasonable’ force have a place? Can people truly be reasonable when their life is in danger? So far psychological theory seems to suggest that it is unlikely.

But perhaps it is not always that cut and dry. There are numerous case studies that suggest that the force used in so-called self defence was not only excessive and unreasonable, but even out of place. Perhaps the same definitions, rules and laws about self defence should not be applied to every case? Just because someone claims they used deadly force in self defence, does it mean they were really on the receiving end of extremely hostile behaviour, or is self defence their excuse, rather than their reasoning?

Last month, in Little Falls, Minnesota, US, a 64 year old home owner Byron Smith shot multiple times and murdered a 17 year old boy and an 18 year old girl in what he claims to be self defence after they broke into his house. While US law does suggest that a person can defend their private property, authorities have focused on a few facts that led them to press charges for murder. Byron Smith admitted to shooting the 17 year old before even seeing his face and then firing another few rounds from point blank range, and then gave similar treatment to the 18 year old resulting in both teen’s deaths. Considering this information, it is now more clear why Smith is charged with second-degree murder, but why does he still perceive his actions to be self defence? The question that first comes to mind is, where does self defence end and murder begin? Perhaps it can be argued that beyond the initial shot of self defence anything and everything else can be considered excessive and unneeded. How many bullets does a grown man need to protect himself from unarmed teenagers? Was it truly necessary for him to shoot them until they were dead in order to defend himself and his property? Surely receiving a bullet would have slowed them down enough for him to call the police and have them sort out the situation as that is their job. The man however took matters into his own hands by ending the intruders’ lives on the spot. Does the fact that the whole scenario took place on his property really give him the right to take things that far however?

What is your opinion on this topic? Is self defence always justified, despite all casualties and consequences? Can every situation be clearly judged when the same law is applied to it? And what role do psychological responses play in all this? A lot to consider, but perhaps there are answers to these questions. What is yours?

Maria Tsaneva

Sources:

Self Defence Law – UK ; US 

Psychology of Survival ; The Fight or Flight Response

What Drove a Man to Kill His Neighbour? ;  Murderer Claims Self Defence ; Little Falls Shooting – Self Defence or Murder?

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