Sunday, August 26, 2012

Possible Change to Self-Defense Jurisprudence on Horizon?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently considered an appeal that required them to review self-defense in Pennsylvania.  While the case was a straightforward application of the current self-defense law, some judges not-so subtly stated that they may be reconsider whether the defense or the prosecution should bear the burden of proving self-defense in an assault case.

Commonwealth v. Mouzon involved a man that went to a Philadelphia bar, approached two women, but, after the defendant's advances were rejected by the women, the defendant not only called the women inappropriate names, he followed them throughout the establishment and threatened to kill them.  At some point, a male came to the aid of the women and struck the defendant several times.  The defendant then pulled a loaded gun from his waistband causing the assailant to raise his hands and take a few steps backwards.  Despite the fact that the assailant had stopped his attack, the defendant shot the assailant in the face and a second gunshot struck an innocent bystander.  The assailant died a few days later.  The defendant was charged with homicide, and, at trial, the defense claimed that the defendant acted in self-defense.  

Review of Case
 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately stated that the defendant could not assert a self-defense argument in this case because he was the initial instigator.  The court noted that man's attack on the defendant was not an isolated incident but was instead the product of the defendant's actions in stalking and threatening the women.  The man was simply acting in a chivalrous manner to protect the women.  Since the defendant instigated the situation that led to the attack on him, the court held that he could not legally have acted in self-defense.

Self-Defense - Who Bears Burden of Proof
The current self-defense law does not require the defendant to prove that his acted in self-defense.  Instead, the defendant must present some evidence of self-defense, through the testimony of his own witnesses or even the prosecution witnesses, and the prosecution must then prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not acting in self-defense.  The primary issue is that the prosecution bears the burden is disproving self-defense after it has become a viable defense issue.

Putting the burden upon the Commonwealth to disprove self-defense was the law in Pennsylvania until the mid-1970's.  Prior to the change, the defense was required to prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence, so the defense side was required to present the evidence to evidence that the defendant's actions were justified.

Is Court Looking to Change Self-Defense Law in Pennsylvania?
The court in Mouzon mentioned a few times that it was significant that the defendant did not testify to support his claim of self-defense to evidence that he was in fear of death or serious bodily injury when he shot the decedent.  The court noted how difficult it was for a court to consider whether or not the defendant was in fear of death or serious bodily injury when the defendant didn't testify.  In a footnote, the author of the opinion wrote:
"This author would note that this case illustrates the wisdom of the common law rule placing the burden upon the defendant to prove self-defense. Although the defense ultimately is subject to objective evaluation, the core is the defendant's “reasonable belief.” That is a matter known peculiarly to the defendant, and there is no logical reason such an actor-sensitive defense should be permitted to arise from counsel's speculative inferences from the testimony of others."
It is clear that the judge that wrote the majority opinion is basically inviting the prosecution to bring a challenge to how self-defense law is applied in Pennsylvania.  The opinion noted that the court could not consider changing the law in this case and shifting the burden of proof to the defendant because the issue had not been raised.  While the court could not consider changing the self-defense law in this case, the author of the opinion clearly invited the prosecution to bring such a challenge in the future.  One judge wrote a separate opinion that noted that the possible change in self-defense law was "clearly not before us, and such dicta does not necessarily reflect the views of the individual justices of this Court."  I expect that self-defense cases will soon be working their way through the appellate courts to give the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to opportunity to consider this issue within the next few years.

Jason S. Dunkle has been a State College criminal defense lawyer since 2004.  His law office, JD Law, P.C., is located in downtown State College, within walking distance of the University Park Campus of Penn State University.  If you or someone you know has been charged with a DUI or other criminal offense, contact JD Law at (814) 954-1094 and schedule a FREE CONSULTATION

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