What is meant by the phrase imperfect self-defense?

You’ve probably heard of the term “self-defense” and are aware that many states have enacted laws that allow a person to defend themselves from imminent danger. While self-defense laws do allow individuals to apply a certain level of force without facing any criminal charges, some go as far as allowing a person to use deadly force when the right circumstances exist. For example, in the People v. Humphrey case, the California  judge stated: “that for self-defense to be a complete or perfect defense to all charges, [the] Defendant must have had an actual and reasonable belief that the killing was necessary.”

The same circumstances would also apply when a person has been charged with attempted murder but has evoked their self-defense rights.

Now, when there is an actual, but unreasonable belief that the killing of a person or an attempt to kill a person is necessary for a person to defend themselves from imminent danger, then an individual might still be faced with criminal consequences. Instead of being charged with a crime such as murder, the court may reduce the crime to one that is less serious in nature. We refer to this not as self-defense but instead, imperfect self-defense.

Understanding Imperfect Self-Defense

In the Raymond L. Middleton, Warden v. Sally Marie McNeil case, Sally Marie McNeil killed her husband after the two got into an argument that stemmed from his infidelity and spending habits. McNeil was charged with murder although she claimed that she killed her husband after he had tried to strangle her in the midst of the argument. She told the court that she had escaped from his grasp, grabbed a shotgun from the bedroom, and “killed him out of fear for her life.”

McNeil had finger marks on her neck she claimed to have been from her husband, however, forensic evidence showed that the fingermarks “were not her husband’s and may have been self-inflicted.” A 911 operator’s testimony stated that he/she “overheard [McNeil] tell her husband she had shot him because she would no longer tolerate his behavior.” Cornell Law School highlighted that under California law, “murder is the unlawful killing of a human being … with malice aforethought.”

However, the law goes on to say that “the element of malice is negated if one kills out of fear of imminent peril. Where that fear is unreasonable (but nevertheless genuine), it reduces the crime from murder to voluntary manslaughter–a doctrine known as “imperfect self-defense.”

In the Raymond L. Middleton, Warden v. Sally Marie McNeil, McNeil was convicted of second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder.

Important: It is important to note that some states might not recognize imperfect self-defense or may have modified their self-defense laws in a way that is different to what is described in the case above.

Essentially, imperfect self-defense can be applied to a case in a state that recognizes it after a person has killed or attempted to kill someone because they feared they were in imminent danger, but that “fear” is considered to be unreasonable.


Applying the law of self-defense and imperfect self-defense to law enforcement.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what imperfect self-defense is, we’d like to discuss how the laws apply to law enforcement officers. Because officers are given the right to apply deadly force, many often do even when the circumstances do not permit it. Sadly, a large percentage of officers who apply deadly force are able to evoke their right to defend themselves from imminent danger to avoid being criminally charged. Very rarely do we see police officers charged and convicted of murder or of a less serious crime, even when the “fear” they claimed they felt was unreasonable.

So, if a loved one of yours was shot and/or killed by an officer of the law who claimed they were defending themselves, but you believe the act was considered excessive, you may have a viable police brutality lawsuit worth pursuing. To find out if you have a strong case against an officer, contact USAttorneys.com and let us find you a police brutality lawyer in your area who has a history of obtaining successful verdicts in their cases.

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