By Matthew J. Bergstrom, Esq.
Despite its location in South Africa, another high profile shooting offers lessons for US gun owners. International Athlete, Oscar Pistorius, stands accused of murdering his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day 2013, and now we’ve had the opportunity to see his case presented in a South African courtroom this week. Pistorius, known as the “the Blade Runner—the fastest man with no legs,” claims he thought he was shooting an intruder in self-defense inside a bathroom in his home . . .
The trial has met expectations for dramatic moments after a year of anticipation and speculation driven by the media. Pictures have circulated of Pistorius vomiting in open court during a witness’ testimony detailing the mortal gun shot wounds suffered by Reeva Steenkamp. Prosecutors also introduced physical evidence by erecting the bullet-ridden bathroom door in the courtroom to challenge Pistorius’ description of the crime scene.
For many reasons, the case is noteworthy for American gun owners because it highlights the legal hurdles one may face when claiming self-defense. If you shoot in self-defense, in order to escape criminal liability, you will have to justify not only your actions, but also your thoughts. Immediately after the Pistorius incident, the court of public opinion wasted no time in attacking the likelihood of his account of events. Many challenged Pistorius’ truthfulness in claiming he believed he was shooting an unknown intruder, others said his subjective beliefs were too unreasonable to accept. Some argued the circumstantial evidence disproved Pistorius’ claims of self-defense.
If this case occurred in the United States, Pistorius could also assert a self-defense claim. Traditional self-defense typically requires the jury to assess the “reasonableness” of the shooter’s actions. If the jury agrees that given the shooter’s circumstances, he or she acted reasonably, then they can find the defendant not guilty.
However, given the questions surrounding whether Pistorius’ actions were reasonable and depending on the state jurisdiction in which he was tried, he could also assert what is called an imperfect self-defense claim.
The doctrine of imperfect self-defense has come to mean three separate things, depending on the jurisdiction in which you may find yourself. First, some courts apply imperfect self-defense where the murder would fall within the perfect self-defense doctrine except that the defendant provoked the encounter. Second, other courts apply the doctrine when the defendant used unreasonable force in defending himself and, as a result, killed someone. Third, some courts only allow the doctrine when the defendant killed someone because of an honest, but unreasonable belief that he was about to suffer death or serious bodily harm.
Pistorius would hope to be in a state adopting the version of imperfect self-defense that allows a jury to find someone guilty of a lesser crime, even when the defendant’s beliefs were unreasonable. In states that do allow this defense, such as Maryland, courts have held that “the honest but unreasonable belief standard of imperfect self defense,” although not a complete defense, “mitigates murder to voluntary manslaughter.” State v. Faulkner, A.2d 759 (1984).
The typical jury instruction for this type of imperfect self-defense looks something like the following:
The defendant acted in imperfect (self-defense/ [or] defense of another) if:
1. The defendant took at least one direct but ineffective step toward killing a person.
2. The defendant intended to kill when (he/she) acted.
3. The defendant believed that (he/she/ [or] someone else/ ) was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury.
4. The defendant believed that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against the danger.
5. The defendant’s beliefs were unreasonable.
Some states, like Virginia, do not allow a jury to reduce your charges if you acted unreasonably to defend yourself. Instead, even if you acted on an honest, but unreasonable belief that your life was in danger, your defense would be an uphill battle to convince the jury to accept the application of complete self-defense and therefore fully acquit you of the crime. In states adopting such an approach, you would be judged not on what you actually believed, but on whether or not your beliefs were objectively reasonable. Pistorius would have a much tougher time beating a First Degree Murder charge in these states.
What does the inherent intricacy of a self-defense claim mean for the armed citizen who believes in being prepared to stop a threat to his life? It means training must be intellectual and emotionless, as much as it is practical. Time at the range should be balanced with reflection on situational awareness, threat perception, and study of the law.
Matthew J. Bergstrom, Esq. is Managing Attorney of Arsenal Attorneys, a law firm concentrating on the needs of gun owners. The Virginia-based firm serves clients nationwide for criminal defense, estate planning, business issues, and the Arsenal Gun Trust.