Law in Contemporary Society
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Imminence and Self Defense

-- By JessicaHallett - 16 Apr 2010

A Battered Woman

Limitations on punishment and availability of excuse, which should provide key safeguards in the criminal system, can instead pose major obstacles to the administration of justice. The decision in State v. Norman illustrates two problems: first, a logical problem with implications of principle and rationale; and second, a problem of unjustified punishment. In Norman, the defendant suffered battered woman syndrome, resulting from years of physical abuse by her husband, the deceased. Throughout 20 years of their marriage, the husband abused alcohol. After he got drunk, he frequently assaulted the defendant. He was also unemployed most of the time, so he coerced her into prostitution with violence. On a few occasions, the husband humiliated the defendant by forcing her to bark like a dog and then eat pet food out of a pet’s bowl. The abuse culminated in a severe beating that led her to call the police, who refused to arrest the husband unless she filed a complaint. She feared that her husband would kill her if she got him arrested. Right after the police left, she attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills. When paramedics came to her aid, her husband intervened, insisting that they let her die. Next day, after the defendant was released from the hospital, she went to social service to sign up for welfare, so she can stop prostituting. Her husband followed her there, dragged her home, threatened to kill her, and continued his abuse with more punching, kicking, and cigarette burns. That evening, the defendant shot her sleeping husband to death. When asked why she killed her husband, she said “I was scared when he took me to the truck stop that night (to prostitute) it was going to be worse than he had ever been … even if it means going to prison[,] [i]t's better than living in that. That's worse hell than anything.”

A Logical Problem

In North Carolina, a jury may acquit a defendant on the grounds of perfect self defense when, at the time of the killing, the defendant believed that it was necessary to kill the victim to save herself from “imminent death or great bodily harm.”. In Norman, the court defined “imminent” as “immediate danger, such as must be instantly met, such as cannot be guarded against by calling for the assistance of others or the protection of the law.” The decision, then, in endorsing this definition, interpreted the “danger being instantly met” as the danger being instant in fact, which are the threat imposed by the husband’s action at that particular moment. Since the husband was sleeping, the court found that no imminent danger was present and rejected self-defense. A more sensible approach in granting the self defense, if “imminent” is to be defined by how instantly a danger must be responded to, is to focus on the defendant. The inquiry should be into the defendant's perception of the necessity of her own imminent action, rather than the actions that the husband would take at that particular moment. The question should have at least gone to the jury, who could have found that the defendant believed her instantaneous action was necessary to meet the danger the abusive husband presented and her belief was reasonable because it was foreseeable that the husband would force her to prostitute and inflict serious bodily injury on her the same night. While this standard would not extend the defense to any defendant who thought that death was inevitable at some indeterminate future point, it would extend it to those for whom the necessity to act in that moment was essential for survival.

A Problem of Underlying Principle

Subjective and Objective Standards

The majority argued that a rule permitting a self defense instruction without an immediate threat of violence by the victim would unjustly determine cases based on “purely subjective speculation” . Such a concern can be eliminated by an objective reasonable person standard in the defendant’s position, without going so far as asserting that a subjective belief of future threat is sufficient for self defense. Could not a reasonable person in her situation have believed, given the years of abuse which the defendant had suffered, that if she failed to act on that very die, she would die or suffer serious bodily injury? The appropriate standard should ask a reasonable person, from the defendant’s view of the extrinsic circumstances, to determine the necessity of immediate action to save her own life at the expense of her abuser’s . Even to an objective viewer, a battered woman who made a reasonable decision to kill her husband under a reasonable belief that she had no other alternative and that if she did not act he would kill her should have a complete defense to a homicide charge.

Dangerous Precedent

What if we wait until the threat of death is instantly and physically imminent – say, a man is holding a woman down, with a gun to her head. In a case when a man holds physical, psychological and emotional power over a woman, and may be also more competent at executing the killing – isn’t the moment of imminence the moment when the woman no longer has any recourse whatsoever? Thus, the moment of imminence as instructed to a jury could be potentially temporally further away from the act of impending violence, when the circumstances so indicate. This is why the imminence should modify the need to act by the defendant and not the impending act in fact by the victim.

An Insupportable Result

Incarcerating women like Ms. Norman fails in every common justification for punishment. If we believe in retribution in one sense, what kind of debt is Ms. Norman repaying, by serving time in prison, for taking the life of someone who essentially destroyed her own? If we believe in retribution in another sense, who among us would call her a moral monster? If we believe in utilitarianism, there will be no deterrent value to her punishment, as she acted in a unique situation which will either a) never be repeated or b) likely result in similar behavior if she once again found herself without alternatives to save her own life. She is not a dangerous woman by nature, but was dangerous towards a specific individual who brought a specific syndrome upon her, and thus does not need to be incapacitated for upholding a public sense of safety, real or imagined. Punishing Ms. Norman was without purpose or justification. It should not have stood then, and should not stand in similar cases now.

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r7 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:29 - IanSullivan
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