An explanation of the justified use of deadly force:
Have you ever actually read a law? If you have, you’ve probably marveled at how so much could be said with little chance of understanding what it really means. I sometimes wonder whether that is intentional so that you have to hire a lawyer to interpret it for you.
Before we get started, let me first say that I’m not an attorney, and nothing I say here should be perceived as such. I’m a retired Pennsylvania State Police Corporal, Army veteran, and certified instructor. All I want to do is give you my understanding after years of experience and talking to attorneys in law seminars.
Let’s get started …
Perhaps it would not be a waste of time to do a search on criminal laws in whatever state you happen to live in and read one. I would start with the portion of the criminal law that deals with the use of force and what constitutes the justification for using it.
First, it is only fair to ask the question: What is justification?
Legally speaking, it is a legitimate excuse to basically commit what would otherwise be considered a crime. For the most part, a law specifically states what constitutes a crime, or what is illegal. Generally, and as a rule, it will not be the other way around.
In other words, the law never really states what isn’t illegal.
So, a law will first explain what is to be considered illegal, but in some instances, the law will specifically address certain exceptions. Nowhere is this more relevant than the use of force in self-protection.
I believe that we can all basically agree that intentionally causing the death of another human being is illegal. Every state has a law on the books that says so. There’s no shock there. However, these same laws also have exceptions, the most prevalent being, for the purposes of self-defense.
This obviously makes sense because other rights don’t mean much without having the right to protect your own life, or the life of another for that matter. Another important aspect of the principle of justification is how it works in a courtroom.
If you are charged with murder and you are pleading self-defense, does that mean that you must prove that you shot the piece of garbage in your living room during the wee hour of the morning because you were legitimately in fear for your life? The answer is resoundingly, “No!”
To the contrary, the burden of proof is on the prosecution. The prosecution has the responsibility to prove that you DID NOT act reasonable or that there was no justification for your actions.
Keep in mind, this sounds like the same thing, but it is not. Especially when you consider that, at trial, the prosecution must prove their case beyond a “shadow of a doubt,” or in other words, there is absolutely no doubt that you did not act in self-defense before a jury can find you guilty of murder.
This is very important. Understanding this principle and how it works dovetails with knowing why it is important to remain silent when being questioned by the police following a self-defense related shooting.
Here’s an example of justified use of deadly force going bad:
Let’s say that you are awakened one night to a loud noise that seems to be coming from your front door. You grab a firearm and move downstairs to investigate.
As you approach the door, you determine that it sounds as if someone is about ready to burst through it. As the result of this fear you fire three rounds through the door and it sounds as if you’ve hit someone.
After a few moments, you open the door and there lies one of your neighbors that you recognize.
Apparently, it is known around the neighborhood that this guy is drunk most of the time and you quickly deduce that he was just trying to get into the wrong house. You could reasonably determine that, once the incident was over, the circumstances were not as you thought them to be when you first approached the door.
Obviously, this is going to have a profound effect on your mental state, but does what you know now as compared to what you knew then change the legitimacy of your actions? Not really, but here is where the issue gets complicated:
When the police arrive, you are completely distraught over how things turned out. Thus, you are emotionally compromised to the extent that you state repeatedly that it was an accident and that you did not mean it to happen.
This statement to the police, like any other statement, can and probably will be used against you in a court of law.
This is key when considering a justification defense because using deadly force in self-defense is an intentional act.
Telling the police that it was an accident will undeniably destroy your case for having intentionally fired your weapon in self-defense, which may be a more accurate way of portraying the events, given what actually happened.
Making those emotionally charged statements change the perception of what your actual state of mind was at the point in which you fired at what you originally perceived was a threat: Which was someone at the point of unlawfully entering your home and placing you in fear of death or serious bodily injury. As you can see, nothing in the language of the law stands on its own.
Each principle and definition shares a symbiotic relationship with the others, like a complex machine in which each individual part has a specific purpose and design that can be explicitly defined and its purpose explained as an individual part of the whole.
Yet, its true function can only be completely understood in the context of how the entire machine is meant to work to understand its true function and necessity. It is important to keep this in mind when we talk about the justified use of deadly force, more commonly referred to as Justification.
Make sure you stay tuned, as we continue to cover topics like this. Also, make sure you get caught up on the others before moving on. Here are some links to other articles I’ve written about different laws: