News: “More Things That Don’t Look Much Like Self-Defense”

Today’s post involves a manslaughter conviction out of Connecticut, as reported in the New Haven Register newspaper, in which the defendant killed the victim with a knife, and the defendant’s claim of self-defense was rejected by the jury.  The sentence for manslaughter in Connecticut is up to 20 years in prison. 

Several interesting issues arise in this case, all of which generally fall under the heading of “things that don’t look much like self-defense.” 

In overview: First, it’s worth keeping in mind that Connecticut is one of the minority of 14 duty-to-retreat states.  Second, the defendant stabbed the victim 17 times.  Third, the defendant had previous experience with the victim’s violent tendencies.  Fourth, the victim was substantially larger than the defender.  Fifth, the catalyst for the fight was an argument over a mutual romantic interest.

The broad facts of the case are that the defendant and the victim encountered each other outside in a public area.  They got into an argument about a mutual romantic interest, the confrontation grew physical, and the defendant killed the victim with a knife.  The defendant would claim self-defense at trial, unsuccessfully.

First:  Connecticut is one of the minority of 14 states that still impose a legal duty to retreat before deadly defensive force can be used in self-defense.  That is, if a safe avenue of retreat exists, you are required to take advantage of that opportunity to retreat before you can resort to deadly defensive force. 

The news report on this case doesn’t address the issue of whether safe retreat was feasible, or not, but an encounter in a public place in which neither party is armed with a projectile weapon is typically the type of situation in which safe retreat may be practically feasible.  If so, this scenario doesn’t look much like self-defense in a duty-to-retreat state like Connecticut.

Second:  The defendant stabbed the victim 17 times.  It’s true that once the conditions for the use of deadly defensive force have been met, the defender is permitted to continue using that force until the deadly force threat has been neutralized. 

That said, double-digit stab wounds begin to look a lot more like an act of age than one of defense, and the greater the number of stab wounds the easier it is for the prosecutor to make such an argument in a compelling way to the jury. 

If your defensive weapon of choice is a knife, I urge you to learn how to use that knife efficiently so that you can effectively defend yourself and your family without creating a fact pattern that resembles a rage-filled stabbing attack.

Third:  The defendant had previous experience with the victim’s violent tendencies.  Specifically, the defendant claimed that he had previously been “beaten up” by the victim on two occasions, and that the victim had threatened the defendant with death just days prior to their fatal encounter.  This is evidence that strengthens the defendant’s claim of self-defense—but only if the defendant actually conducted himself consistent with such evidence. 

If, however, the defendant arrived at the location of the fight knowing the victim would be there, or engaged with the victim in verbal argument when he could have instead left the scene, such conduct would suggest that the defendant didn’t really believe the victim presented a substantial risk of deadly harm. 

We don’t know from the news report if there were any such facts that could undermine this evidence in this way, but that’s certainly what a prosecutor would be looking for.

Fourth:  The victim was substantially larger than the defendant.  Specifically, the victim was reported as being seven inches taller than the defendant and 60 pounds heavier. 

This kind of size disparity is precisely the sort of aggravating factor that can shift a bare handed attack from the non-deadly force bucket of threat to the deadly force bucket of threat.  If so, a deadly force defensive force might be appropriate and lawful against even a “mere” barehanded attack. Such an aggravating factor does not automatically cause such a shift to the deadly force realm, however, and a great many other issues can outweigh such an aggravating factor. 

For example, the prosecution in this case acknowledged the disparity in size between the two men, but argued that the only really substantive difference between them was that the defendant brought a knife to the fight. 

Whether this is a factually sound argument is less important than whether it is an argument the jury finds persuasive.

Fifth:  The catalyst for the fight was a dispute over a mutual romantic interest.  Most reasonable jurors can understand that sometimes, under some circumstances, it may be necessary to take another human life in defense of oneself or one’s family.  The general rule of “do not kill unless you have a really good reason” is one that’s easy to understand and accept—but it does require a really good reason. Arguing over a woman is unlikely to be perceived by a jury as a really good reason.

–Andrew

Attorney Andrew F. Branca  
Law of Self Defense LLC

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