‘I was scared’ is never an excuse for homicide

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“I was afraid” is no more a justification for the taking of a human life than “I was drunk” would be.

The right of self-defense should only apply to those whose lives are in actual danger, not those reacting to an imaginary danger.

People who kill by reason of irrational panic, like people who kill in the heat of anger, should be charged with a lesser degree of homicide than those who kill in cold blood.   That’s mitigation, not an excuse.

If you are driving an automobile, there can be circumstances—say, a pedestrian jumping out right in front of you—when there there is nothing you can do to avoid a fatal accident.  But pulling the trigger of a firearm is always a choice.

No one who takes an innocent life with a firearm, whether deliberately, by accident or by mistake, should be allowed to own or handle a firearm ever again.

∞∞∞

[I added the illustrated quotation on Dec. 7, 2014.]

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11 Responses to “‘I was scared’ is never an excuse for homicide”

  1. 3boxesofbs Says:

    How do you define “in actual danger’?

    Let’s use the example of a man waking up in the middle of the night, hearing an intruder in his house.
    Kids are in 3 different bedrooms, wife is in a 4th bedroom.

    Home owner goes out with a firearm, shines a light and sees the guy moving toward him, toward the bedrooms.

    Fires a shot and kills the intruder?

    Was the guy ‘in actual danger’?

    Bob S.

    Like

    • philebersole Says:

      That’s for a jury to decide.

      Like

      • 3boxesofbs Says:

        I’m confused.

        You seem to be advocating for a standard you can not or will not define. I’m not saying it has to be a great definition but given your view; would you consider the guy in ‘actual danger’ or was he ‘simply afraid’?

        This is the problem with trying to define terms like this – you are advocating a standard that would be impossible for the reasonable person to use during the crime.

        What are the signs of “Actual Danger”? The criteria?

        The idea that a reasonable person could identify and agree with ‘in fear of his life’ in my scenario is easily seen. Someone in your house at night is up to no good. The movement toward instead of moving away/giving up is a strong indicator of bad intentions.

        So how do you define “actual danger’?

        Bob S.

        Like

  2. philebersole Says:

    To Bob S.

    My dictionary definition of “actual” is “existing in fact or reality, not false or apparent.” My dictionary definition of danger is “exposure or liability to injury, pain or loss.”

    My definition of “actual danger” is exposure of liability to injury or death existing in fact or reality, not false or apparent.”

    When I wrote the post, I was thinking of all the instances I’d read about in which someone who was obviously NOT in actual danger took a human life out of fear.

    I’m thinking of the man years ago who opened fire on trick-or-treaters and killed a Japanese exchange student, the man more recently who shot and killed a woman knocking on his door because she’d been in an auto accident and needed to use a phone, and the many, many incidents in which an unarmed person is shot dead on the street for making a suspicious movement with their hands.

    No law or general statement can foresee or cover all possible circumstances, and that is why we have juries.

    In the hypothetical case you mention, the armed householder would very definitely be justified in using deadly force to protect his family against an armed serial killer, and would not (in my opinion – you may differ) be justified in shooting and killing his drunken neighbor who opened an unlocked door and entered the wrong house.

    Obviously the latter tragedy should not be treated as the equivalent of an armed robber shooting a convenience store clerk, but neither should it be treated as nothing.

    I have tried to answer your question to the best of my ability.
    I would be interested in knowing whether you think fear is a justified defense to homicide in the examples I gave above.

    Like

    • 3boxesofbs Says:

      Phil,

      Thanks for a clearer picture.

      In the hypothetical case you mention, the armed householder would very definitely be justified in using deadly force to protect his family against an armed serial killer, and would not (in my opinion – you may differ) be justified in shooting and killing his drunken neighbor who opened an unlocked door and entered the wrong house.

      The problem with your example here is those facts are often not known until afterwards. In the middle of the night, the homeowner should not have to ask “hey are you my drunken neighbor or a thug here to rape/rob.” Wouldn’t you agree?

      The fear — person who isn’t supposed to be in the home — is real regardless if the person is there with criminal intent or not.

      Could you tell the difference in intentions between the guy drunkenly pounding on a door or someone in rage pounding on the door to assault you?
      Could you tell the difference between a drunken teenager just looking for a thrill of sneaking into a house and a drunken kid trying to rape the teen girl he saw on the street earlier?

      I think that fear is justified in the cases you mentioned — in some cases. Each case varies.

      who opened fire on trick-or-treaters and killed a Japanese exchange student, t

      Wiki states it this way

      He was armed with a loaded and cocked .44 magnum revolver. He pointed it at Hattori, and yelled “Freeze.” Simultaneously, Hattori, stepped back towards the house, saying “We’re here for the party.” Haymaker, seeing the weapon, shouted after Hattori, but Peairs fired his weapon at point blank range at Hattori, hitting him in the chest, and then ran back inside

      So in the night, strangers ring the door bell. A common technique robbers use to see if anyone is at home. After coming to the door armed, the deceased approached the homeowner — wouldn’t you be afraid if someone started walking toward you, kept coming even as you shouted freeze?

      Tragic, yes. Criminal no.

      the man more recently who shot and killed a woman knocking on his door because she’d been in an auto accident and needed to use a phone

      This one was tried and found to be criminally negligent homicide if I remember right. In this case, I definitely agree with the decision. The homeowner didn’t have to go outside, didn’t have to answer the door. While pounding on the door, ringing the bell is still a trick of the criminals, it was obvious the person was still outside the home.

      many, many incidents in which an unarmed person is shot dead on the street for making a suspicious movement with their hands.

      Each of those have to be judged on their own merit. The typical requirements are means, opportunity and intent. It is darn difficult to judge intent sometimes. That is also something people should keep in mind. It is a two way street if it is possible your intent could be misjudged, you might want to reconsider doing it, right?

      Try this idea. Take your proposed law and imagine your worst enemy using it against you — you ran over a protester in the street after they surrounded your car, you accidentally hit someone on the street — would you want them judging your state of mind?

      That is why the reasonable person test of fear has worked well.

      Bob S.

      Like

  3. philebersole Says:

    Thanks for your responsive answer.

    If I knowingly ran over somebody with my car and killed the person, I would expect to be held accountable, and to be judged on the facts of the situation, not on what I claimed to be my state of mind afterward.

    If I killed somebody out of panic, whether with a car or with a gun, when I was not in fact in danger, then I should be accountable for my action.

    My state of mind might be a mitigating factor in determining the sentence or the nature of the charge, but not an excuse for taking a human life.

    In your examples, you seem to place a lot of responsibility on the unarmed innocent person to anticipate what a shooter might do, and very little on the shooter for judging whether he (or she) is in actual danger.

    Like

    • 3boxesofbs Says:

      Phil,

      If I killed somebody out of panic, whether with a car or with a gun, when I was not in fact in danger, then I should be accountable for my action.

      That is one of the issues we seem to be talking over/around. It matters less if the person was ‘actually in danger’ then if (s)he though, reasonably that (s)he was in danger.

      Think of the times people have been shot because they had something in their hand. Isn’t reasonable at the time, place, circumstances that the shooter THOUGHT it was a dangerous object?

      I shouldn’t have to wait until someone shoots me, stabs me, throws a knife at me, etc before I act. The only way in some cases for a person to know if the danger is ‘real’ is to be attacked. Isn’t that an entirely unreasonable standard to hold?
      I definitely don’t want my wife, my daughter to have to wait until they are attacked before they can defend themselves.

      In your examples, you seem to place a lot of responsibility on the unarmed innocent person to anticipate what a shooter might do,

      I was responding to your idea, your opinion that it all depends on the shooter. That is something that I’ve seen pushed over and over again. Let’s not hold people responsible for their actions.
      Get drunk and barge into the wrong house –oh well, not a problem.
      Get the urge for some fast money and break into a house — oh well, you are just a misguided person.

      Where is the push for the people to take responsibility for their actions. Let’s use your examples

      The Japanese student — in this day and age of electronics, web searches, etc — shouldn’t they know exact directions to the place they are going?
      A simple practical and responsible action on their part could have prevented the tragic death.

      And oh my goodness the drunk on the porch. Drinking, Driving, Not calling for help on her own cell phone… how many different actions could she have taken?
      Even the simple recognition that people in this day and age don’t get visitors banging on their doors late at night could have caused her to knock, step back and wait. But drunk she didn’t take a reasonable step, did she?

      Your view of the cases put every responsibility on the gun owner and not shared,

      I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the ‘reasonable person’ and ‘fear of life’ should be used to judge the shooter. Your idea takes away any shred of action until the person has been attacked or at least pushes it to the absolute last minute. That isn’t very practical.

      Let’s turn back to someone in my house. I’m 6’2″ and 225# — someone could make the case that unless an intruder in my house was stronger, taller, weighed more — then I really wasn’t in ‘actual’ danger, right?

      Never mind that I haven’t had a fight in 35 something years, that I have asthma and bad knees……as long as I could overpower the other person, I wasn’t in danger, right?

      Never mind that I might not know if (s)he is armed, a martial arts expert, high on drugs that makes them not feel pain. How could any of that be determined except after the fact?

      That makes your ‘actual danger’ provision unreasonable and impractical in my mind.

      Bob S.

      Like

  4. philebersole Says:

    Human beings have an inherent basic right to self-defense. The United States Constitution guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms. I do not question either right.

    But with rights go responsibilities. I believe people who claim a right to defend themselves with lethal force have a responsibility to verify that they actually are in danger.

    I feel sorry for people who are so fearful that they see this as something unreasonable. I feel sorry for people who are so afraid that they think any stranger knocking on their door, or any suspicious move by some stranger on the street, is a threat to be met by the unhesitating use of lethal force.

    But their fears are not a justification for taking my life, or the life of any other innocent person.

    Like

    • 3boxesofbs Says:

      Again….how do you ‘verify they are in actual danger’?

      It is easy to arm chair quarterback the situation after the fact – but consider the middle of the night scenario, the sudden rush of someone coming out of the bushes, etc.

      Waiting until someone attacks, stabs, rapes, etc is foolish and unnecessary. The law is quite clear on whether or not a reasonable person would fear for their life.

      And the numbers, despite the sensational news stories aside, prove that people make good decisions. The very fact the media covers the stories proves how rare they are; news stations rarely covers the common, the ordinary.

      And yes, their fears are justification for taking your life if the situation warrants it. If your action cause a reasonable person to fear for their life, regardless of your intentions, then it is permissible and legal to use lethal force. Don’t like the laws, change it.

      but again — how in the middle of the moment should a person respond, how can they act with the certainty you seem to demand?

      Like

  5. marknoo Says:

    Cheney didn’t even have his guns taken away when he shot that lawyer in the face in Texas. Where I am from if you pull a trigger you are responsible for whatever the bullet does whether you meant it to or not. I guess that ain’t so when your a politician or maybe it is just true when you are in Texas.

    Under no circumstances should United States law hold the average citizen to a higher standard than their leaders.

    I don’t have a problem restricting the right to bear arms to someone who has taken an innocent life whether it was intentional or not. If you are stupid enough to shoot someone, even a lawyer, in the face (even if it is in Texas). You should not be handling weapons.

    Like

    • 3boxesofbs Says:

      Marknoo,

      Luckily for us, you don’t get to write the laws. The idea of differentiating between criminal action and negligence has been around for a very long time — it is even in the Bible.

      Do you believe that people who kill someone in a ‘car accident’ should lose their rights? That parents who let their children drown lose their rights to have kids? How about fires?

      The justice system recognizes that people can not know all of the facts at the time something is happening. That is why the ‘reasonable person’ standard exists. Someone who is ‘innocently’ in my house (still a crime) is almost impossible to distinguish from someone in my house to harm me. To say that a person has to know what the motives of an intruder, a person running at them, etc is completely inane.

      Bob S.

      Like

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