It might seem logical that if someone killed someone else in self-defense, it should be easy to prove and avoid murder charges. But that’s not always the case. There are specific circumstances in which self-defense is a valid defense in avoiding murder convictions. Here’s what you need to know.

What Does it Take for Self-Defense to Succeed in Overcoming Murder Charges in California?

California law does have protections for people who killed someone while defending themselves. However, it’s not enough to simply claim self-defense or defense of another person. The court must be convinced that the person charged with murder had no other choice because their own life or the life of a third person was at risk, or they were at risk of severe bodily injury. The defendant (the person charged with the murder) must demonstrate that the death occurred because they used the force necessary to repel the attacker.
If the defendant can’t prove this to the court’s satisfaction, they could be charged and convicted of manslaughter or murder.

What Is Required for a Successful Self-Defense Case?

California imposes several conditions that must be met for someone to successfully claim self-defense to avoid murder or manslaughter charges.

  • Reasonable belief of imminent danger. This means that the person charged with killing someone (the defendant) had sufficient reason to believe they or someone else was in imminent danger of being killed, grievously injured, or subjected to a forcible or atrocious crime.
  • Reasonable belief of the necessity to use deadly force. The defendant had sufficient reason to believe they needed to defend themselves or someone else against those dangers and needed to use deadly force to do so.
  • Use only the amount of force necessary. This means the defendant used only the amount of force necessary to prevent the other party from committing murder or grievous injuries. In other words, if the defendant could have prevented the murder or injuries without killing the attacker, they should have done that instead.

These can be complicated conditions to prove in court. That’s why it’s highly advisable to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to have the best possible chance for success with self-defense claims. 

What Types of Bodily Injury Can Justify Self-Defense Killings?

State laws make it clear that self-defense only applies when someone expects to be murdered or severely injured. A broken arm or bruises from being hit are not usually enough to claim self-defense when killing someone. Instead, it must be nearly life-threatening or involve life-changing injuries, such as injuries that require amputations or leaves someone paralyzed.

What Does “Imminent Danger” Mean in a Self-Defense Case?

Imminent danger means someone believes their life is in danger at that moment, and if they don’t act in that moment, they could die or be significantly injured. Self-defense won’t apply in cases where the defendant acted at a time they weren’t in imminent danger. In other words, someone can’t use self-defense as an alibi if the person they killed was not actively attacking them at that moment, even if they had reason to believe they would later. Future harm is not valid; harm at the moment is.

One example would be someone telling you that they have a gun at home and plan to use it to kill you later. If you get a gun yourself and kill the person before they can get their gun, that will not likely be considered self-defense.

What Is a “Stand Your Ground” Defense?

In some states, a self-defense case must prove that the defendant tried to get away (or retreat) from the attacker before killing them. However, California recognizes stand your ground laws, which state that the defendant does not have to try to escape before killing or injuring an attacker. This applies even in cases where the defendant could reasonably have escaped from the attacker without being harmed, as long as they felt the attacker was about to kill or severely injure them.

What Is the Castle Doctrine?

The Castle Doctrine is a legal concept that says someone has the right to take action against an intruder in their home as long as the intruder is not a family or household member. It applies when an intruder tries to enter the home illegally. If the defendant had reason to believe someone was breaking into their home, they have the right to protect their home and its occupants by killing or injuring the intruder. California is one of many states that abide by the Castle Doctrine.

What if the Defendant Started the Fight?

If the defendant started a fight with someone, then tried in good faith to stop it without further injuries to either party, they may be able to claim self-defense if the other party continues fighting in such a way that the defendant began to feel their own life was in danger. It can be complicated to prove and should be done under the advice of an attorney.

What Should I Do if I Killed Someone in Self-Defense?

Call the SoCal Law Network at 949-305-7995 to set up a free consultation. Being charged with murder is a serious matter, and self-defense claims are not always enough to avoid conviction. Our team of experienced, knowledgeable criminal law attorneys can walk you through the facts of your case and propose a course of action for your defense and what the best outcomes might be.