Angiulo: Justifying the Use of a Firearm to Defend Another
Monday, April 25, 2016
The case of Commonwealth v. Allen focuses on how such a situation will be evaluated. In the Allen case, a fight had erupted on the streets of Boston between two men. What started with an exchange of words led to a fist fight between Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Williams. From there the facts become hazy, but there are allegations that knives were used by one or both of the combatants. Shortly after the knives came out, Mr. Allen is alleged to have shot Mr. Williams and killed him.
At trial, Mr. Allen claimed he only used the gun to defend Mr. Buchanan. This claim is a legal excuse for murder, if a jury believes it, because of a legal theory known as “defense of another.” This theory works much like self defense except it describes when an person is justified in defending a third party. At the core of this theory is that we, as a society, want to encourage the defense of people who appear to be in life threatening danger from an attacker. Some might see this as the legal equivalent of the popular slogan about a good guy with a gun being the best defense against a bad guy with a gun.
Unlike popular culture, however, the legal theory of defense of another is brought into trials through jury instructions. Like anything else at trial, a jury is free to credit whatever evidence they choose. They can believe the defendant's version or accept the government's allegation of wrongdoing. In the Allen trial, the question was whether the murder was justified. In the appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court had to decide whether, or not, the trial judge gave the correct instruction to the jury on the topic.
Defense of another has particular two elements that are well settled. First, a reasonable person standing in the defendant's shoes would believe the third party needed protecting. Second, the defendant must reasonably believe that the third party would be justified in using deadly force to protect themselves. In the context of defense of another, there is no duty to retreat, but the jury may consider whether other actions could have prevented the need for deadly force.
The Supreme Judicial Court ultimately decided Mr. Allen required a new trial on the murder charge because of improper jury instructions. Not all of the defendant's charges, however, were overturned. In this case, the defendant was also charged for and convicted of various offenses involving the unlicensed firearm used in the case. While our legal principles may justify what he did with it, possessing the gun was still a crime.
It is an uncomfortable reality that sometimes the use of force is justified. What the Allen case reminds us of is that there is an overarching requirement of reasonableness in the actions taken to defend yourself or another.
Related Slideshow: The Influence of Gun Money in New England States
New Data from The Sunlight Foundation shows state-by-state breakdowns for donations to groups on both sides of the gun debate. The money went toward candidates, political parties, and political action committees (PACs), but doesn't include donations to independent or so-called “super PACs”.
See how much money went to candidates in each of the New England States in the slides below.
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