The self defense claim has been used in court likely as long as there have been courts. The idea in its modern form appears to first come from Johnathan Hobbes in his 1651 book Leviathan where he speaks about how no man is unafraid of a violent death, and such fear justifies self-defense. The exact nature of what is and is not self-defense has been in continuous flux as circumstances and ideals change with the times.
In January of 1895 a young man by the name of John Allison was indicted for the murder of his father, William Allison. He was found guilty by a jury and was sentenced to be hung until dead; however, he sued a writ of error and had the sentence reversed because of the language the judge used to instruct the jury.
The defendant defended himself in the proceedings and presented himself, giving his account as evidence. He told of how his father had threatened several family members lives repeatedly and had gone to prison for assault of one of his sons and son-in-law. John also spoke of how his father came to their home and refused to leave until John threatened him with a gun, William responded as such, “God damn you, I will go off and get a gun, and kill the last damned one of you;” and proceeded to tell a son-in-law tell John, that he would blow his God damned brains out the first time he seen him; and told him to tell him he would kill his mother and the entire family (U.S. Supreme Court). After this encounter John and his mother sought the advice of a lawyer and John asked what would happen if he were to kill his father. The attorney informed him that so long as he did not hunt his father down or seek him out that he would likely be justified. On the day of the homicide, John asserted that he was passing by the house at which his father was staying, returning from a hunt, when he thought he saw his brother. He went to the barn hoping to catch his brother on his way out and hoping to avoid his father, but his father came down. John attempted to move to allow his father by, but his father moved toward him and made a gesture as though reaching for a gun. At this point John shot his father three times. Several other witnesses corroborated his story, including the man he had gone hunting with. Additional evidence included confirmation that his father often carried a pistol and on his hip as John had feared.
The prosecution focused on the final moments of the incident. Their expert witnesses cast doubt on: his testimony that his father came towards him in a threatening manner, and that he had stopped firing when his father fell. Additionally (in the moment that caused the reversal of the case) the judge told the jury:
You have heard in argument here — incidentally dropped, no doubt, because these things have been repeated here so often in this Court that every child knows what the law of self-defense is — that if a man thinks he has a right to slay, he can slay. That is a great misapprehension of what this proposition of the law is and what it means. If that was the case, how many men, when they were arraigned for the killing of a human being, would not assert that they thought they had a right to kill? They might be mistaken, but they thought so. They perhaps had a misunderstanding of the law, but then they thought they had the right to kill. What a perversion of this protection agency called the ‘law of the land’ this would be. No, that is not the law. It must be shown by the evidence that the party who was slain was at the time doing something that would satisfy a reasonable man, situated as was the defendant, that the deceased, William Allison, then and there was about to do that which would destroy the life of the defendant, and that he could not prevent it except by doing as he did do. The question as to whether that is the state of case or not is a question that is to be finally passed upon by the juries of the country, and by you in this case, and you must have something more tangible, more real, more certain, than that which is a simple declaration of the party who slays, made in your presence by him as a witness, when he is confronted with a charge of murder. All men would say that. No man created would say otherwise when confronted by such circumstances, and the juries, as a matter of fact, would have nothing to do but to record the finding which was willed or established by the declaration of the party who did the killing. (U.S. Supreme Court)
The supreme court found that this, while unintentional, had essentially told the jury not to believe the defendants account as opposed to considering it critically. Though not a part of the prosecution, the judge had biased the jury against the defendant and likely guaranteed his conviction.
As stated previously, self-defense laws are constantly in flux, changing with the times and ideals of the nation. This is evident in the disparity of circumstances necessary from state to state for the self defense laws to apply. In Florida for example, a stand your ground state, the idea of needing to retreat to safety if possible is ludicrous, whereas here in Maryland it is legally necessary in almost all situations. As such any attempt at a single unified law regarding self-defense is a tall order. However, were I to draft such a document it would, upon first draft, appear as such.
Self-defense is the use of appropriate force to defend ones self, ones property, or one who for some reason is unable to defend themselves from a clear and immediate threat. Appropriate force is defined as force not in excess of the force being levied against the defendant with consideration taken towards the defendants circumstances. For example, a defendant being assaulted with a deadly weapon may respond as such; however, a defendant who has both the time and ability to defend themselves nonlethally should to the best of their ability respond as such. Additionally, deadly force is never appropriate in the defense of property, no matter how valuable, as no object or amount of money is equal to a human beings life. One who is unable to defend themselves may be defined as, but is not limited to: a minor, someone with a mental or physical handicap that makes it difficult or impossible to defend themselves, someone who is in a lowered state of mind preventing them from defending themselves, or someone who is at such a disadvantage that defending themselves would be impractical (ex. a knife in a gunfight). A clear and immediate threat is defined as a situation where someone or something is in active danger of assault or destruction to the belief or understood belief of someone in a rational state of mind.
This law is in no way perfect but attempts to break down and clearly define several aspects of the self-defense law. The difficulty lies with the necessary definition of appropriate force. There will always be mitigating circumstances where one must respond as they can, so I added the direct consideration of circumstances so that a jury would not be boxed into a corner as to convicting someone that rationally may have been safer than they felt they were. For example, someone who has just suffered a head wound may be justified in thinking their life is in danger and defending themselves as such even though later analysis shows that their life was likely not in danger.
Self-defense is a legally difficult subject to cover. Everyone agrees that they should be able to defend themselves under certain circumstances, but the actual circumstances under which it is justified are difficult to define legally. The best I believe we can currently do is attempt to give a jury a simple set of guidelines like the one Ive provided and allow them to see if the circumstances were justified.
U.S. Supreme Court. Allison v. United States. Justia, supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/160/203/.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Dover Publications, Inc., 2018.