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Leonardo Angiulo: ‘Self-Defense’ and Massachusetts Law

Monday, July 22, 2013

 

If you want to understand what a self-defense argument in a criminal case means, you need to understand why that argument is made. In a self-defense argument, you are on trial and you are saying to a jury through testimony or evidence: “Yes, I did something to this other person. But I only did it because I was protecting myself.”

Let’s take the basic example of an Assault and Battery charge. In Massachusetts, the crime of Assault and Battery can be defined as an intentional, unconsented, touching of another without having any right or excuse for doing so. In order to be culpable for a crime, each and every element of the offense must be reflected in the evidence of a case. That last part of the definition is where self-defense comes into play. In a self-defense argument, you had a right or excuse for using force upon the person of another. In essence, they started it.

It goes to the very core of our rights that we may defend ourselves if someone else invades our space. My home is my home and not yours. Your body is your own and not theirs. If a person fails to observe these basic truths, you do not have to suffer their invasion quietly or passively. You have the right to use force to protect yourself, your home and your family. Of course, this right is subject to some limitations. In this article, I am focusing specifically on the issues of law surrounding your right to physically protect yourself.

Under the current state of Massachusetts Law, if there is evidence of self-defense the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant not only committed the crime but also did not act in self-defense. The issues of fact that the prosecutor can use to prove that a person did not act in self-defense are limited by law. What those issues are depends on the type of force used.

If a person used non-deadly force in self-defense, the Commonwealth must prove one of three things for a conviction: (a) that the defendant did not reasonably believe they were being attacked, or about to be attacked, and that because of that attack their safety was in danger, (b) that the defendant failed to do everything reasonable in the circumstances to avoid using force, or (c) the defendant used more force than was reasonably necessary in the circumstances. Non-deadly force might include things like closed fists or grabbing somebody’s arms.

The issues change slightly when the type of force changes. In order for the use of deadly force to be justified, the defendant must have been confronted with an immediate danger of deadly force. The legal language for this principle does something like this: if a defendant uses either (a) force intended or likely to cause death or (b) a dangerous weapon in a manner intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm then a prosecutor has a different, but similar, burden of proof. If a person used deadly force in self-defense, the Commonwealth must prove either: (1) that the defendant did not reasonably and actually believe they were in immediate danger of great bodily harm or death, (2) that the defendant failed to do everything reasonable in the circumstances to avoid using force, or (3) the defendant used more force than was reasonably necessary in the circumstances.

What is a reasonable belief of immediate danger is a short question with a long answer. This could include the actual events of an incident or an alleged victim’s history of violence known, or unknown, to a defendant. Every situation is unique but reasonableness has a certain amount of universal truth to its definition. Let’s take some figures from pop culture as an example. If Kourtney Kardashian walked towards Dewayne “The Rock” Johnson in a threatening manner with closed fists saying she was going to bust him in the face and knock him out, what’s reasonable here? Anybody familiar with the situation would say Ms. Kardashian is both too short to reach Mr. Johnson’s chin to actually punch him and if she somehow did reach he might not even feel it. Would any of you readers believe he could form a reasonable belief of imminent danger?

Now, change the hypothetical. Let’s say she holding a folding chair and has backed him into a corner. He has two choices, either let her hit him or use his strength to disarm her and hold her arms until the police arrive. So long as he only uses the amount of force necessary to he is acting within the law of self-defense in Massachusetts. What if he takes the chair away and pulls out a gun and shoots her. The issue that develops is whether his subsequent use of force is clearly excessive and unreasonable. Some of the evidence that would be considered is the relative size and strength of the parties, the location of the incident as well as what type of weapons are involved.

The current state of the law in Massachusetts is that a person cannot lawfully act in self-defense unless they take advantage of all other reasonable alternatives before using force. What is a reasonable alternative include things like physically walking away, getting help if it could be rendered in time, by holding the attacker at bay or something else depending on the situation. The law takes into account that a person who is attacked has to make choices quickly in an emotional situation. But if you can take yourself out of a situation and put yourself in safety, do it. Human beings have a fight or flight instinct. Walking away from a trash talker in a bar is an easy way to remove yourself from a situation where you might have to confront a physical threat with force.

Sometimes the question of who is the initial aggressor in a case is not crystal clear. For that reason, juries have one of the toughest jobs in our system of justice: making decisions based on evidence in a case.
 

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

 

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