Self-Defense and The Law
As an instructor within the Self Defense Company and manager of the Self Defense Company of Greater Boston, I would be remiss if I did not address this question. You may remember the public and media focus on the 2nd-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman who was accused of shooting and killing 17 years old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Martin was unarmed when he was shot by Zimmerman. Florida is what is known as a Stand Your Ground state. And Zimmerman claimed he had acted in self-defense. But the laws in various states differ. So the purpose of this post is to cover Massachusetts law specifically.
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the burden is placed on you to avoid physical confrontations, if you can do so without jeopardizing your safety. Now please understand that I am not an attorney, nor do I play one on TV. But this summary of the law of self-defense is provided for informational purposes only an has been collected from what I believe to be reliable sources. If you have specific questions regarding your right to defend yourself, others, or your home within the Commonwealth please be sure to consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer.
Massachusetts Law on Self-Defense – The Basics
First and foremost under Massachusetts law, if you are being attacked or have cause to believe that you are about to be attacked, placing your physical safety in immediate danger (and that point is critical), then you have a right to defend yourself.
But here is a caveat to your use of self-defense. However, you are obligated under the law to take reasonable steps, if available, to avoid physical combat before resorting to force. Yes this means running away or retreating if possible. In the event that you do use self-defense, you are not allowed to use more force than would be reasonably necessary to defend yourself.
The Use of Deadly Force in Self-Defense
You may use deadly force – clearly defined as “force intended or likely to result in the death or great bodily harm of an assailant” – only where you reasonably believe your assailant poses a threat to cause you great bodily harm or death. In other words, someone comes at you swinging a knife, a baseball bat or threatening you with a similar weapon that you believe could cause you serious bodily injury then you would be within your rights to defend yourself with deadly force. Although it should never be one person’s intention to kill another human being.
You Have the Duty to Retreat
Unless you are within your home or a place where you reside, you may use physical force in self-defense only where you are unable to escape without exposing yourself to further danger, summons immediate help, or hold the assailant at bay until help arrives.
However, in Massachusetts and under the Massachusetts Castle Rule, you are not required to retreat from your home or to attempt to avoid combat with an unlawful intruder. You are of course only allowed to use deadly force on an intruder if you have reason to believe that he or she may kill or badly injure you or another person within the home or dwelling.
Before You Resort to Deadly Force
It is often difficult under the emotional stress and strain that an assailant’s attack can cause you, it may be impossible for you to accurately gauge the danger posed to you or others. Under those circumstances, you may be required to assess your intruder’s intentions or the level of danger in a matter of seconds. Naturally, in those instances where an assailant who might be armed with a knife, a baseball bat, or even a gun, attempts to inflict great bodily harm to you or kill you, you would be well within your rights to self-defense by means of using deadly force. But let’s take this one step further, in those instances where an assailant, by his words, actions, or deeds – such as reaching for a weapon – gives you reason to believe that he intends to inflict upon you or a loved one within your home great bodily harm, or even worse kill you, you are justified in using deadly force against him.
The Judge Instructs the Jury
In Massachusetts, judges instruct the jurors that the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt (no question about it) that the defendant did not act in self-defense or used excessive force to defend himself.
The defendant is not required to offer any proof that he acted in self-defense. These instructions, after all, are only fair.
The jury must decide whether an individual acted in self-defense.
The assistant district attorneys – on the other hand, have the luxury, within the safety of their offices, of slowly and carefully analyzing every aspect of a situation in determining whether an individual acted in self-defense. While often, what exactly happened within the home or on the street, when the individual (now the “defendant”) took the steps that he believed were necessary to preserve his life, may have only lasted only seconds and were made as what he believed to be life or death decisions.
The assailant or intruder may have been perceived as particularly menacing, threatening, or even emotionally unstable, the defendant may have been forced to evaluate the intruder’s intentions while overwhelmed with fear for his or her life. In such a circumstance confronted by an unknown and likely dangerous assailant, the defendant’s decision to forego taking the steps to safeguard his life may discover too late that the assailant intends to inflict serious bodily harm.
To ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial, the judges instruct juries to consider the amount of time the defendant had to act and the emotional strain he was under when he reacted. This is another critical point when considering a self-defense plea.
So What To Do If You Are Accused of Using Excessive Force?
If you were placed in a situation where you had to defend yourself or loved ones against an assailant and now find that you are charged with a crime, you should always seek out a competent and skilled criminal defense lawyer.
Know Your Rights
The only way to stay out of trouble is to know the law an how it relates to your situation. I hope this post has helped you to better understand your rights when facing a split second decision. No dceision is worth going to jail for.