When Is Killing In Self-Defense Legally Justified Under Federal Law?

Most of us will be — or have been — attacked by someone else at some point in our lives. Even when we’ve done nothing to provoke such an attack, they’re hard to avoid forever. The legal term for any killing done without breaking the law is “justifiable homicide” and it usually means a person was acting in self-defense. Many people know that the law allows people to defend themselves, but very few people are familiar with the extent to which they can do it — and that’s led many a great many people to unexpected incarceration.

In general terms, justifiable homicide is a common legal defense when two subjects were involved in a fight. If the “victim” believes that there was an immediate threat of grave injury or death, then the victim has the right to self-defense. This is different to stand-your-ground laws adopted in several states, which say a person has the right to self-defense even when running away is a viable option.

And therein lies the rub: if you have a reasonable expectation of safety should you retreat in a state without a stand-your-ground law, but you choose to attack the other person or defend yourself anyway, then you will likely still be arrested, charged, and convicted or murder (or manslaughter). 

Another example involves home invasion or breaking and entering. If you must defend yourself from a robber or someone who threatens your life in your own home, of course you have the right to do so — even to the extent of taking the perpetrator’s life. However, if at any point the perpetrator turns to run, your right to self-defense evaporates. In other words, if you shoot someone in the back, you can still be tried for murder. 

And that’s where a lot of people get it wrong. 

The castle doctrine is another important distinction from stand-your-ground laws. It stipulates that no one has the obligation to run from their own home, even if doing so might save lives. But if running away outside home might save lives, a person has the obligation to run away. 

Opponents of stand-your-ground laws argue that they both increase self-defense claims and increase the number of homicide cases in states where they are enacted. Additionally, they make those homicide cases much more difficult to prosecute, even when charges are justified. 

Miami Police Chief John F. Timoney described the law as unjust before stand-your-ground was passed in Florida. He said, “[w]hether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly force where it shouldn’t be used.”