The Vague Line Between Victims Acting in Self-Defense and Using Excessive Force

The Vague Line Between Victims Acting in Self-Defense and Using Excessive Force

The Vague Line Between Victims Acting in Self-Defense and Using Excessive Force
The Vague Line Between Victims Acting in Self-Defense and Using Excessive Force

Five young men board a subway train late at night after drinking at a baby shower. They sit across from a number of other young men who had been drinking at a bar and are loud and raucous, and harassing other passengers. One of these men throws a bag of garbage toward the door but it misses, and it is tossed back to him. The two sides curse each other out, and a fight ensues. A 24-year-old hits a 19-year-old student majoring in criminal justice over the head with a beer bottle. The student falls to the floor and the group pounces on him. He pulls out a four-inch folding knife that he had been carrying around since being attacked twice over the previous few years. He lashes out and fatally stabs two of his assailants. The student and his friends jump off the train at the next stop and flee. He is later arrested, charged with second degree murder, and held in jail. In a newspaper story, he is branded “the knife-wielding butcher in the horrific subway slaughter” who “went berserk,” and the two deceased persons are portrayed in a sympathetic light. But a grand jury does not indict him, deciding that because he feared for his life and was unable to escape, he was actually a victim and his use of a concealed weapon was an excusable act of self-defense. (Eligon and Baker, 2010; and Parascandola et al., 2010)


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Around five in the morning, a woman hears an alarm go off, looks out the window, and spots 3 men trying to pry out the radio from their car in their driveway. She awakens her husband, an FBI agent who works undercover assignments, who grabs his service pistol. When banging on the window and yelling doesn’t stop the trio of thieves, and one appears to be reaching for a weapon, the agent fires a single shot from his second floor perch, hitting that man in the back. They are soon captured at the hospital. But weeks later all four agree not to testify against each other. Misdemeanor charges are dropped against the thieves, and the agent’s possible felony isn’t brought before a grand jury. The FBI pledges that it will conduct a thorough and independent investigation of the incident, since the Bureau’s guide- lines clearly state that an agent can resort to deadly force only if he believes that a suspect poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to him or another person. (Celona et al., 2012)

As the above examples show, sometimes vic- tims cross a vague line and face charges of over- reacting to a crime in progress. Self-defense involves the use of force to prevent a violent crime from being completed or to rescue an intended victim from harm. In certain cases, how- ever, the explosive violence unleashed by victims might seem to be a response that is out of propor- tion to the initial threat and therefore is more force than the law permits under the doctrine of self- defense. But such distinctions are more easily drawn in classrooms and in textbooks than in real-life confrontations. In actual cases, difficult questions must be resolved: Was the victim still in imminent danger? Did the victim still reasonably fear serious bodily harm, or even death? Was the response proportionate to the perceived threat, or did the victim overreact?

Police officers are the first to grapple with these questions when they decide whether to make an arrest. Prosecutors confront these issues when they determine what charges, if any, to lodge against an intended target who emerged victorious from a bat- tle with an aggressor. If the case goes to trial, jurors, acting as the conscience of the community, must arrive at a verdict by answering such hypothetical

questions as: What would I have done under similar circumstances? Does the abuse the victim endured excuse his or her excessive reaction? Did the assail- ant get what was coming to him? What message does the verdict send to the public? Juries retain the right to nullify legal principles, disregard the limits imposed by the law, and render a collective decision based on their own interpretations of what is reasonable and appropriate under particular cir- cumstances (Dershowitz, 1988).

Difficult “judgment call” cases like these illus- trate the sociological insight that no act is inherently criminal, and that all crimes are socially defined. Even when one person slays another, the killing may not be a murder punishable by many years of imprisonment. The survivor could argue that the nature of the confrontation was a matter of life and death, and that the deceased person should not be viewed as a victim but as a would-be offender who was vanquished in a kill- or-be-killed struggle. The way this death is handled is socially defined: It is up to the police to deter- mine whether to make an arrest and to the prose- cutor and a grand jury whether to press charges. If the person arguing that he killed in self-defense is arrested and put on trial, then it is up to the jury and perhaps even the judge to decide the validity of this claim. If the survivor of the showdown is con- victed and sent to prison, then a parole board ulti- mately can shape his fate. All throughout the process of deciding what to do about the killing, public opinion, media coverage, and the reactions of elected officials and lawmakers play a role in shaping the social definition of what happened and how similar cases should be handled in the future.

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