Self Defense Doctrine Gone Wrong

Self Defense Doctrine Gone Wrong

Courts care about fine distinctions in the rules in a way that the other branches of government generally do not. They let people get off on technicalities, and they have to defend their actions with sometimes very abstract reasoning. Sometimes, though, this can get them in trouble.

Self defense is an area where the core rule is very old, and in theory uncontroversial. At its most basic, self defense is a justification for homicide or assault, meaning that somebody who acted in self defense is not legally culpable at all. It traditionally has four elements: (1) the defendant must have believed she or another person was in immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury, (2) that belief must be reasonable, (3) the defendant must not have been the aggressor in the altercation that gave rise to this danger, and (4) the amount of force used by the defendant must have been reasonably necessary to avert the danger. So far, so good. We can fight over things like the duty to retreat, but the bare bones of the rule are fairly straightforward.

The trouble begins with Paul Eugene Lyons, (and also a series of similar defendants, but it sounds more dramatic this way). Lyons was in his home when several police officers arrived at the door and attempted to execute a search warrant. Lyons testified that he didn’t hear them identify themselves as police and thought that his home was being invaded, so he fired through the door at the people battering it down. One officer was struck and killed, and Lyons was charged with his murder. He tried to claim self-defense at trial, but the trial court refused to instruct the jury on self defense. He was convicted and appealed. When the case reached the NC Supreme Court, they were bound by a standard of review that was very forgiving to Mr. Lyons. Defendants are entitled to jury instructions on legal defenses if any reasonable jury could side with them, even if all seven justices on the court think that said defendant is full of it.

So rather than send the case back down for a new trial, they found that he couldn’t possibly have fired his gun in self defense. Because Lyons fired through a closed door, he couldn’t see his target, meaning he couldn’t be shooting with specific intent to kill one of the intruders. And because he hadn’t formed a specific intent to kill one of them, the court reasoned that he could not have determined that it was reasonably necessary to shoot to kill, because he didn’t, in fact, shoot to kill. Thus no element #4 of self defense, no jury instructions, and no successful appeal for Mr. Lyons. NC courts went on to apply this reasoning to all sorts of homicide cases: defendants who meant to fire warning shots but accidentally hit someone weren’t entitled to self defense instructions, nor were defendants who claimed they fired their guns accidentally.

This puts North Carolina in the awkward place of having a law of self defense that actively punishes people for attempting to defend themselves without killing their antagonists. Defendants that shoot to kill get self defense instructions, those that attempt to fire warning shots, shoot wildly towards their attackers, or merely brandish a weapon do not. While someone worried about the public policy implications of this law might not want to punish people for resorting to deadly force too quickly, it is nonsensical to penalize defendants for trying too hard to reach a bloodless outcome.

Hopefully this will get corrected soon. Another defendant, Omar Cook, was convicted for firing a gun through a closed door at police executing a search warrant in 2014. Unlike Lyons, his bullet didn’t hit anyone, so he was only convicted of assault on a law enforcement officer. His case is currently awaiting a decision by the state Court of Appeals. Should he lose, as seems likely, there will be a chance for the State Supreme Court to hear the case and clean up its mess.