Defenses to Criminal Liability

There are many affirmative defenses available to an accused such that even if he admits to the crime he may allege the existence of certain circumstances or defenses to relieve him from criminal liability.  These defenses are either called Justification Defenses or Excuse Defenses.

Justification Defense

Self defense is an example of a Justification Defense.  Justification Defense relieves the accused of criminal liability because the nature of the act is one that is socially acceptable and deserves neither criminal liability nor censure. Thus, even if a person admitted to have committed the crime, he will be exempt from criminal liability because the act when taken in its proper context is judged to be proper or at least to be warranted (Eugene R. Milhizer, 2004, p.36).

When an accused successfully proves that he acted in self-defense there is no criminal liability even if there is a crime.  The law considers the action of the accused to be in accordance with law such that the accused is not deemed to have transgressed the law and is free from criminal liability.  The essence of self-defense is described by the court in the case of Comm. v. Barnacle, 134 Mass 215 (1883), to wit;

“It is well settled that, if a man is attacked, he has the right to defend himself. If the attack is of such character that, and made under such circumstances, as to create a reasonable apprehension of great bodily harm, and he acts under such apprehension, and in the reasonable belief that no other means will effectively prevent the harm, he has the right to kill the assailant.” (Com. v. Barnacle, 134 Mass. 215, 215 (1883).

In self-defense, the accused admits to committing the crime yet he presents evidence to the satisfaction of the jury or the judge that proves that he is justified from committing the crime.  In this instance, the burden of proof shifts from the accused to the prosecution who must meet their burden of proof otherwise the accused shall be entitled to acquittal.  In practice however proving self-defense and convincing the court that a person’s action falls within self-defense is very difficult.

A person who claims he is justified in committing the crime on the basis of self-defense must prove the following: 1) There must be unlawful aggression on the part of the person injured or killed by the accused; 2) There must be a reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel it; 3) Lack of sufficient provocation on the part of the person defending himself.

In determining the presence of unlawful aggression on the part of the person injured, the law only requires that the accused be assaulted or attacked or at least be threatened with an attack in an immediate and imminent manner.  Otherwise, if there is no unlawful aggression then there is nothing to prevent or repel.  The test in determining the presence of unlawful aggression is not an objective one.  It depends on the person who is subject of the attack.  So long as he reasonably believes that the danger was present or actually in existence and that the danger is on the point of happening, then unlawful aggression is present. This was affirmed in the case of Brown v. United States, 256 US 335 (1921), where the Supreme Court declared that:

“The right of a man to stand his ground and defend himself when attacked with a deadly weapon, even to the extent of taking his assailant’s life, depends upon whether he reasonably believes that he is in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant, and not upon the detached test whether a man of reasonable prudence, so situated, might not think it possible to fly with safety or to disable his assailant, rather than kill him.”

Reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel an unlawful aggression refers to the reasonable necessity of the course of action taken by the person making a defense and that there must be a reasonable necessity of the means used. The requirement of reasonableness of the course of action taken and the means used is satisfied if the client used no more force than what was necessary in all the circumstances of the case.  While it is true that a person who is being attacked is not duty-bound to expose himself to be wounded or killed, he must however use such means as necessary to disable the accused.