A Warning Shot about Self-Defense

Suppose John is facing a deadly assault and fears that he will be killed or suffer great bodily harm. John has a firearm but, rather than shoot his assailant, he fires a warning shot. The shot goes awry, strikes John’s assailant, and kills him. May John rely on self-defense if charged with murder? The answer may be surprising.

John may not be able to rely on self-defense in this scenario. Under current North Carolina case law, his defense may be accident. Here’s why.

Focusing on the intended result. Generally, a person may use deadly force—that is, force likely to cause death or great bodily harm—if reasonably necessary to save himself from death or great bodily harm. See, e.g., State v. Pearson, 288 N.C. 34 (1975). Thus, in the above scenario, John would have the right to shoot and even kill his assailant if he met the other requirements for self-defense (for example, John wasn’t the aggressor).

One might assume from this principle that if faced with a deadly assault, a person could opt to use nondeadly force if the person thought that a lesser degree of force would be sufficient to end the threat. North Carolina decisions define nondeadly force as force neither intended nor likely to cause death or great bodily harm. See, e.g., State v. Pearson, 288 N.C. at 39. North Carolina decisions have also found that a warning shot may constitute nondeadly force. See State v. Whetstone, 212 N.C. App. 551, 558 n.4 (2011); State v. Polk, 29 N.C. App. 360 (1976). Thus, in the above scenario, one might conclude that John could rely on self-defense if he used non-deadly force to defend himself and unintentionally killed his assailant.

Since the mid-1990s, however, the North Carolina courts have tried to establish a firmer boundary between intentional and unintentional killings for purposes of self-defense. In various situations, they have held that a defendant who used nondeadly force and unintentionally killed could not rely on self-defense despite his claim that he was defending against a deadly assault. Thus, in addition to the warning shot scenario above, the courts have held that the defendant was not entitled to rely on self-defense based on evidence that he grabbed a gun from an assailant (or the assailant tried to grab the defendant’s gun) and in the ensuing struggle the gun inadvertently went off and killed the assailant. See, e.g., State v. Nicholson, 355 N.C. 1, 30–31 (2002) (warning shots); State v. Gray, 347 N.C. 143, 166–67 (1997) (gun struggle), overruled on other grounds, State v. Long, 354 N.C. 534 (2001); State v. Hinnant, ___ N.C. App. ___, 768 S.E.2d 317, 319–20 (2014) (warning shots); State v. Gaston, 229 N.C. App. 407 (2013) (gun struggle).

To make a long story short, these decisions rest on the phrasing of the first requirement for self-defense in murder cases. The requirement is often phrased as follows: The defendant must have believed in the need to kill to avoid death or great bodily injury. Focusing on the first part of this requirement, decisions have held that the defendant must literally “believe in the need to kill,” shown by an intent to kill or at least an intent to use deadly force. See also North Carolina Pattern Jury Instruction—Crim. 206.10 at p. 2 n.4 (June 2014). In other words, the evidence must show that the defendant intentionally shot at his assailant in self-defense. Under this approach, a defendant who uses nondeadly force, such as firing a warning shot or struggling over a gun without intending to fire it, is not entitled to claim self-defense even if he believes his actions will address the threat he is facing. Because he does not believe in the need to kill, his defense, if any, is accident, not self-defense.

It’s possible that the courts did not intend to impose such a blanket requirement. The courts may have rejected the defendant’s claim of self-defense in particular cases because they doubted that the defendant believed he was facing death or great bodily harm, which is also part of the “belief” requirement. Language from some cases suggests that the defendant’s perception of the threat against him is the critical inquiry for the “belief” requirement, not the method of force he used or the ultimate result. See State v. Richardson, 341 N.C. 585, 590 (1995); see also John Rubin, The Law of Self-Defense in North Carolina at 47–48 (UNC Sch. of Gov. 1996). The literal language of the “belief” requirement and cases applying it may not support this narrower focus, however. See also State v. Crawford, 344 N.C. 65, 77 (1996) (refusing to modify jury instruction requiring that defendant have believed in need to kill).

The potential impact of accident as a defense instead of self-defense. What is the impact of applying accident instead of self-defense principles to warning shot, gun struggle, and other murder prosecutions in which the defendant acted defensively but did not intend to kill or use deadly force? The case law on accident is relatively undeveloped in these situations, making the rules less certain than in self-defense cases. Based on the above decisions and the additional ones cited below, here are some possibilities to consider.

1. Jury instructions. The courts have held that the defendant is not entitled to have the jury instructed on self-defense in these cases. Still, some explanation to the jury about self-defense principles may be necessary. For the defense of accident to apply, the defendant must have engaged in lawful conduct and must not have acted with culpable negligence. See, e.g., State v. Riddick, 340 N.C. 338 (1995). The firing of warning shots or use of physical force to gain control of a gun could be considered unlawful or criminally negligent unless the defendant had the right to take those actions to defend himself. Accordingly, a hybrid instruction of some kind, explaining how principles of self-defense may make the defendant’s actions permissible, may be necessary.

2. Evidence. The courts have sometimes found that the defendant could not offer the sort of evidence allowed in self-defense cases to explain why the defendant believed it necessary to take defensive action—for example, evidence of previous instances in which the victim acted violently, which made the defendant reasonably believe it necessary to use force in self-defense. See State v. Strickland, 346 N.C. 443, 445–46 (1997) (finding such evidence inadmissible in support of defense that court characterized as accident defense). Again, however, for the jury to determine whether the defendant acted lawfully and without culpable negligence—requirements for an accident defense—such evidence would seem to be relevant.

3. Lesser offenses. The courts have held that a defendant who did not act with the intent to kill or at least use deadly force is not entitled to a jury instruction on imperfect self-defense, which reduces murder to voluntary manslaughter. A defendant may still be entitled to an instruction on involuntary manslaughter. A person may be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter if he killed another person by either (1) an unlawful act that does not amount to a felony and is not ordinarily dangerous to human life or (2) a culpably negligent act or omission. See State v. Wilkerson, 295 N.C. 559, 579 (1978). The cases do not provide clear direction on how to apply these elements to the kinds of cases discussed in this post, however. For example, State v. Hinnant, 768 S.E.2d at 320–21, presented a seeming Catch-22 to a defendant who claimed that he fired two warning shots and inadvertently hit the victim. The court held that he was not entitled to a voluntary manslaughter instruction based on imperfect self-defense because he did not intend to shoot anyone, but he was not entitled to an involuntary manslaughter instruction because he intentionally discharged a firearm under circumstances naturally dangerous to human life.

4. Whether the defendant testifies. The cases recognize that for a defendant to rely on self-defense, he need not testify. Other evidence may show that he met the requirements of self-defense, including the requirement in a murder case that he believed in the need to kill to avoid death or great bodily harm. See State v. Broussard, ___ N.C. App. ___, 768 S.E.2d 367, 370 (2015). As a practical matter, however, a defendant who relies on self-defense will often take the stand to explain what happened. The defendant’s testimony about his intent when he fired or took other actions will likely be critical to whether the case is governed by self-defense principles or the evolving rules on accident.