Self-Defense

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I posted yesterday about one of the recent Court of Appeals decisions.  At the risk of going back to the well, I want to highlight another of those cases today.  (I’ve got something else in mind for tomorrow.)

In State v. Revels, available here, the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder.  She appealed, claiming that the trial court had erred in failing to instruct the jury on self-defense and imperfect self-defense.  The fact were as follows.  The defendant and her husband split up and the husband took up with another woman, who eventually became the victim.  The defendant and the victim had at least one run-in prior to the murder, and then, one night when both the defendant and the victim were out “cruising” — which I didn’t know people still did — they ran into each other at a gas station.

The two “began fighting, hitting each other with their fists and pulling each other’s hair.”  The defendant was winning the fight when the victim pushed her into the back seat of the car the victim had been riding in.  None of the witnesses saw what happened in the back seat, but shortly, the victim stumbled back out of the car, followed by the defendant, who was swinging a bloody knife.  The victim had been stabbed three times, including once in the heart, and she died of her wounds.  A key dispute at trial concerned the origins of the knife.  The man the defendant was dating at the time of the stabbing testified that the defendant regularly carried a knife and that it looked just like the murder weapon.  The defendant’s husband, who had reconciled with the defendant after the defendant fatally stabbed the victim, i.e., his girlfriend, testified that the knife was actually his knife, and that the victim had borrowed it from him shortly before the murder.

The defendant requested jury instructions on perfect and imperfect self-defense.  Her argument was that “neither woman had a knife before defendant was pushed into the back seat of the car. . . . [B]ecause [the victim] had been riding in the back seat, it is reasonable to infer that [she] had left the knife in the back seat, pushed defendant into the back seat so that [she] could get the knife, and then [she] used the knife on defendant,” at which point the defendant took the knife away from her and stabbed her in self-defense.  The trial judge denied the request for instructions, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.  

It affirmed for two reasons.  First, it found the defendant’s evidence of self-defense to be too speculative.  Assuming that the knife was the victim’s, the court ruled that it was sheer speculation that the victim had left the knife in the back seat, and sheer speculation that the victim, as opposed to the defendant, reached for the knife first.  Second, the court held, “even if [the victim] did introduce the knife into the fight, the evidence is undisputed that defendant received only a small cut on her index finger before she took the knife away from [the victim]. There is no evidence that defendant, having disarmed [the victim], then actually and reasonably believed that she needed to stab [the victim] multiple times, resulting in her death.”

The first part of the holding strikes me as reasonable, though not inarguable, and by itself, it provides a fully adequate basis for the court’s disposition of the case.  The second part of the holding, though, strikes me as implausible.  Assume, arguendo, that the defendant had introduced evidence that the victim pulled the knife out from under the backseat and attacked the defendant with it, but that the defendant was able to wrestle the knife away from the victim.  Does/should the law really require the defendant, in that circumstance, to gently set the knife aside and continue with the fight?  If I were attacked by someone my own sex, about my own age, and as far as the court’s opinion suggests, about my own size and strength, and if that person pushed me into the backseat of a car and drew out a knife, and if I were so fortunate as to be able to wrestle the knife away from that person, I’d use it.  The court cites State v. Hayes, 130 N.C. App. 154 (1998), in support of its conclusion that the defendant wasn’t justified in using the knife, but that’s not very convincing.  In Hayes, the defendant’s wife attacked him with a bat while they were in the garage.  He took the bat from her, killed her, and then claimed self-defense.  He was denied a self-defense instruction, because the court determined that after he took the bat away from his wife, the defendant was no longer in mortal danger.  But Hayes is unlike Revels because in Hayes, the victim was a female, while the defendant was a male, suggesting a strength differential, and because in Hayes the space was not so enclosed, creating more options for casting the weapon far from the fray.

I’m interested in your views about this part of the Revels holding.  I’d particularly like to hear from some law enforcement officers: if you were attacked in close quarters by somebody more or less your physical match, wielding a knife, and you took it away, what would you do?  What would you expect the consequences of your action to be?

3 comments on “Self-Defense

  1. The legal principle in Revels that interests me the most is this statement by the Court: “Although defendant did not testify at trial, a defendant is not required to testify or offer evidence in order for the jury to be instructed on the law of self-defense.” That has been the law, but there are not many cases that state it so explicitly. As a practical matter, however, a defendant who claims self-defense and who does not testify may have a rough ride before the jury and the court. The opinion in Revels suggests that neither the trial court nor the appellate court believed the defendant’s version of what happened. Credibility is for the jury, not for the court, of course. But, if the defendant does not testify, the jury and court may be less inclined to side with the defendant.

  2. Jeff,
    I have a client who went to the defense of his brother, who was being attacked in a fist fight, however, my client used a beer bottle to render the assailant unconscious. Your thoughts.
    Thanks.

    • If the brother was not the aggressor, then it would seem that your client had a right to come to his defense. But was the use of the beer bottle excessive force? John Rubin’s book on self-defense discusses the defense of others, starting at page 120. Might be worth a read.

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