Self-defense is considered a “perfect defense,” meaning you automatically qualify for a full acquittal if the defense succeeds. However, even with a top criminal attorney, it can be difficult to prove all of the requirements for self defense, particularly in a case involving murder. When it’s impossible to prove self defense in a murder case though, it may still be possible to argue that the defendant used “imperfect self defense” though, which will at least serve as a partial defense to the charges in the state of California.
How Self Defense Normally Works
For a lawyer to mount a successful argument for self defense, he must be able to show the client reasonably believed:
- they (or another person) were in danger
- that immediate force was required to stop the threat
- they did not use excessive force.
The last point can be particularly difficult to prove in murder cases where the victim was not armed or extremely violent, as you can only use deadly force to respond to a deadly threat. For self defense to justify homicide, you must be able to show that a reasonable person would have acted the same way.
Fortunately, if you can at least prove that you believed you needed to use deadly force, the charge can be reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter —that’s what the “imperfect self defense” argument is.
Imperfect Self Defense Definition
This defense was first established under the 1979 California Supreme Court case of People Vs. Flannel, which is why sometimes called the Flannel Doctrine. For the defense to work, the jury must accept that someone believed:
- they were facing a deadly threat
- the only way to defend themselves was through the use of deadly force
When using this defense, it does not matter if either of those beliefs would be considered unreasonable to the average person. Because this concept only covers deadly force, this defense can only be used in murder cases.
For example, if you saw someone holding a knife up to someone else and yelling at them, and you shot them without saying a word, you might need to use this defense if it turned out that the person you killed was only rehearsing for a play.
How Does Imperfect Self Defense Work?
In a courtroom setting where you have been accused of murder, your attorney will present your case. The judge will provide the jury with the definition of true and imperfect self defense. If the jury accepts that a reasonable person would have believed their life was in immediate danger and they had no other way to protect themselves, you will be set free because you would have been found to have been acting in self defense. On the other hand, if the jury believed that you genuinely thought your life was in danger and the only way to protect yourself was to use deadly force but that an average person would not feel that way, you would be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder under the Flannel Doctrine.