A jury found Kyle Rittenhouse, the young man who shot three people and killed two of them in Kenosha, Wisconsin, not guilty of murder. Regardless of the circumstances and the behavior of the judge and prosecutors, at some fundamental level, this is not surprising: Rittenhouse felt his life was threatened, and said he acted in self-defense.
The events in Kenosha and the trial made me wonder: when it comes to armed people shooting other people: what is self-defense? How far does it go as a justification? I know there is a legal definition that varies by state, but thinking as a citizen and potential juror, for what kinds of fatal actions would you vote to convict?
As an exercise, imagine that you are on a jury. The facts and evidence that you see in court are as described below. In each case the defendant has killed someone else, intentionally, and says they were acting in self-defense.
You can read the scenarios and respond on this blog, or take as survey so I can collate the response and report on them later. (To take the survey online, go here.)
In which of these scenarios would you vote to acquit on self-defense grounds or convict of murder? If you would like to share your perspective at the end, you may wish to take notes.
- An angry group of armed men with torches shows up at a man’s door. He answers the door holding a handgun. They threaten to burn down the man’s house with his wife and children inside. The man shoots and kills a member of the group.
- An unarmed group of angry men shows up at a man’s door. He answers the door holding a handgun. They threaten to burn down the man’s house with his wife and children inside. None of the men have any materials visible that could be used to set the house on fire, but the man is aware that a house three doors down was set on fire recently. The man shoots and kills a member of the group.
- A woman knocks on a man’s door. He answers the door holding a handgun. She tells him that if he doesn’t stop his dog from digging up her flowerbeds next door, she doesn’t know what she’ll do. The man shoots and kills the woman.
- An angry group of armed men with torches shows up at a house and, shouting loudly, start to prepare to the burn the house down. A neighbor believes that the people inside the house are in danger, and shoots a member of group.
- Same scenario as number 4, but the neighbor believes the house is empty.
- A man shows up at another man’s door. The man inside answers the door holding a handgun. The man at the door identifies himself as a policeman and says he wants to search the house for evidence of a crime. However, the man at the door is not dressed in a uniform and fails to show a badge or any documents. The man in the house refuses. The man at the door then points a gun at the man in the house and orders him to comply. The man in the house shoots and kills the man at the door. At the trial, the prosecution reveals that the the man at the door actually was a policeman.
- Same scenario as number 6, but the man at the door is not actually a policeman.
- A man dressed in a uniform with a badge shows up at another man’s door. The man in the house answers the door holding a handgun. The man at the door identifies himself as a policeman and says he wants to search the house for evidence of a crime. However, the man in the house knows that the uniformed man at the door was recently fired from the police force, and he refuses to let him inside. The uniformed man then points a gun at the man in the house and orders him to comply. The man in the house shoots and kills the man at the door.
- A woman is repeatedly beaten by her husband. While he is drunk and attempting to beat her again, she is concerned that he will beat her to death. She stabs and kills him.
- A man is repeatedly beaten by his wife. While she is drunk and attempting to beat him again, he is concerned that she will kill him. He stabs and kills her.
- A woman is repeatedly beaten by her husband. One night, he beats her and then passes out. She finds a gun and shoots him while he is unconscious.
- Five armed men approach a woman on the street, at night, point guns at her, and tell her to hand over her purse. She reaches into her purse, takes out a gun, and shoots and kills one of the men.
- Same scenario as number 12, but the men are brandishing knives, not guns.
- Five armed men approach a woman on the street, at night, and tell her she needs to go to church more often. But seeing the guns these men are carrying, she feels threatened. She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots and kills one of the men.
- Three male bodybuilders are walking down the street at night. A five-foot, two-inch, 68-year-old woman is going past them the other way. She hears them make a remark about her that she feels is threatening. She pulls something metal out of her purse and points it at them. One of the men feels threatened and pulls out a concealed handgun, shooting and killing her. At trial, prosecutors reveal that the item she pulled out of her purse was a can of pepper spray.
- A group of armed men travel to a town to where a riot is going on. They array themselves in front of a local store. They shoot at anyone who gets close and threatens them. They shoot and kill one man who is carrying a gun, but had not raised that gun to threaten anyone.
- A group of armed men travel across town to where a riot is going on. They array themselves in front a local store. They shoot at anyone who gets close and threatens them. One of the people they are shooting at shoots back and kills one of the group.
- A man in a store that he owns has called several friends for help because there are people looting on the street and he is worried someone will attack his store. Another man with a gun who does not know the store owner has positioned himself outside the store, but neither the armed man nor the store owner communicate in any way. When the store owner’s friends arrive, armed, the man with the gun outside the store feels threatened and shoots and kills one of the people arriving for help. Later, the shooter claims that he had come to town to defend people’s property from looters and was attempting to protect the store from being attacked.
- An Iraq war veteran is walking down the street at night when he sees a man in an Arab headdress (kaffiyeh), holding a small pineapple-shaped object in his hand and with something metal in his mouth. Perceiving the man in the headdress as a threat and the object as a grenade, the veteran shoots and kills the other man. At trial, the prosecution shows that the man in the headdress was carrying a paperweight and vaping.
I’d like to hear from you
Note that with the exception of the last scenario, I have not included racial descriptions in any of these scenarios. My intention was to get at readers’ ideas about self-defense, not about race, which would complicate things further. But I’m interested in which of these scenarios you, the reader, might answer differently based on the race of the accused and the person killed, and in which cases you think the jury might answer differently based on the race of the killer or the victim.
If you are legally trained, I’m sure you have definitive answers for all these scenarios. I’m not all that interested in what the “right” answers are. I’m interested in what the reactions of the untrained citizens reading this are. If you do have legal training, which of these scenarios do you think people get “wrong” based on the law?
Did you find any of these scenarios upsetting?
Which ones were hardest to decide?
Which ones do you feel the current laws don’t cover, and might need to be changed?
If you want to share your answers here in a comment, it might be easier for readers to understand and compare them if you do that in the following format:
Guilty of murder: n, n, n, and n.
Not guilty: n, n, n, and n.
Couldn’t decide: n, n, and n.
If you’d like to me to include your aggregated answers in a future post, answer the survey here.
2 responses to “The murder quiz: what is self-defense?”
Not guilty 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 17
Guilty 3, 5, 15, 16
Undecided/Need more info 1, 2, 4, 10, 11, 14, 18, 19
This ws a fascinating exercise. I kept my comments in the body of the test. I’m very curious to see a future analysis.