Eugenio Correa (the Defendant) was visiting with his girlfriend. Her estranged husband, with whom she had separated five months earlier, phoned her, drunk, seeking to see their daughter. The girlfriend and Correa were about to leave for the evening, and she told him it wasn’t a good time. Her ex continued to make repeated, and increasingly menacing, phone calls. At one point Correa shouted “Let him come over and take on a real man.”
The Girlfriend’s Ex was living with his mother at the time, so she called her to ask that he be prevented from leaving, but his mom said he had already departed. The Girlfriend immediately called the police.
It wasn’t long before he was at her door, kicking and banging on it. Correa, hearing the noise, armed himself with a handgun and went down to meet the guy at the front door. His Girlfriend later testified that she heard Correa say, “Man you’re not coming in here, you’re not getting in here.” She then heard a loud bang, and Correa came back up the stairs to meet her. He told her that he had shot her ex, claiming that he had “jumped him.”
The Girlfriend went downstairs and found her estranged husband lying in a pool of blood. (It would turn out that he had been shot through the head.) She again called the police. When they arrived, she told them what had happened.
When Correa was ultimate brought to trial, he chose a bench rather than a jury trial. In a bench trial, the judge assumes the “finder of fact” role that would normally be carried by the jury.
A key defense at trial was that the Defendant had acted in justifiable self defense in using force against the man.
The trial court, however, rejected his argument. Instead, the court found that it was the Defendant, not his Victim, who had been the initial aggressor, and on that basis the Defendant could not justify his use of force as self defense.
The trial court noted that Correa had yelled through the phone to “come on over and take on a real man,” and then later chose to greet him at the front door with a gun. He opened the door himself, enabling his Victim to gain access to the home’s vestibule. Collectively, these actions were sufficient to make Correa an aggressor in the conflict, and therefore not entitled to the legal defense of self defense.
The Defendant was convicted at trial of voluntary manslaughter.
The Appellate Decision
The Defendant appealed his conviction. In an August 1994 decision, Commonwealth v. Correa, 648 A.2d 1199 (PA Superior Court 1994), the appellate court ruled that “the evidence supports the [trial] court’s finding that [the Defendant] provoked and continued the altercation,” and was therefore not eligible to qualify his actions as lawful self defense. His conviction for manslaughter was affirmed.
It may seem to many that if your girlfriend’s estranged husband comes drunkenly banging and kicking on the front door, threatening to kill, a perfectly natural reaction is to arm yourself and confront him to prevent him from entering. As we can see from this case, however, actions that might seem chivalrous and brave in the moment can easily drive a narrative of provocation and aggression in the cool, calm, 20-20 hindsight of a safe courtroom.
As armed citizens we must always ask ourselves: Could the actions we are considering in self defense be innocently misperceived–or deliberately misrepresented—by the prosecutors and trial judge as provocative? Could the prosecutors point to the many alternative actions that you could have taken instead, and argue that your use of force was therefore not necessary or justified? And could these arguments sway the finder of fact, whether that be a learned judge or a novice jury, that your actions were not necessary, and therefore not self defense?
Having the legal right to act in self defense and defense of our families, even if it necessitates killing, is a fundamental human right, and we are fortunate to live in a country that recognizes this to be so. Nevertheless, the law of self defense is layered with mine fields that can easily take out the poorly informed armed citizen.
Know the Law.