Disproving Common Law Defense of Self-Defense

Author: LegalEase Solutions

QUESTION PRESENTED 

What is the burden of proof for a self-defense claim in Michigan, and what factors or facts do the courts consider when deciding the same?

 

SHORT ANSWER

            For a self-defense claim in Michigan, once the defendant satisfies the initial burden of proving self-defense, the burden of disproving the common law defense of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt lies on the prosecution. A defense of self-defense is justifiable if the court is satisfied that the defendant acted as he did to prevent harm to himself.

 

RESEARCH FINDINGS

In General

At common law, the “affirmative defense of self-defense justifies otherwise punishable criminal conduct, . . . if the defendant honestly and reasonably believes his life is in imminent danger or that there is a threat of serious bodily harm and that it is necessary to exercise deadly force to prevent such harm to himself.” People v. Dupree, 486 Mich. 693, 707, 788 N.W.2d 399, 407 (2010).

Accordingly:

[o]ne who is not the aggressor in an encounter is justified in using a reasonable amount of force against his adversary when he reasonably believes (a) that he is in immediate danger of unlawful bodily harm from his adversary and (b) that the use of such force is necessary to avoid this danger.

Id.

Burden of Proof

Generally, “[w]hether common law affirmative defenses are available for a statutory crime and, if so, where the burden of proof lies are questions of law.” People v Dupree, 486 Mich 693, 702; 788 NW2d 399, 404 (2010). Likewise, it is well-settled law in this state that “it is the duty of the trial court, in criminal cases, to instruct the jury as to general features of the case, define the offense, and indicate that which it is essential to prove to establish the offense even in the absence of request.” People v. Pearson, 13 Mich. App. 371, 377, 164 N.W.2d 568, 571 (1968). The court must therefore “consider the charge in its entirety to determine whether it was substantially correct and not prejudicial to the rights of defendant.” Id.

Accordingly:

[t]he well settled law of this state that in criminal cases where the issue of self-defense has been raised, the burden of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, still rests with the people, and that the burden is not on defendant to satisfy the jury that he acted in self-defense, but rather the people have the burden of showing facts that would convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant did not act in self-defense.

People v. Pearson, 13 Mich. App. 371, 377, 164 N.W.2d 568, 571 (1968).

The court reaffirmed that “once the defendant satisfies the initial burden of production, the prosecution bears the burden of disproving the common law defense of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.” People v. Dupree, 486 Mich. 693, 710, 788 N.W.2d 399, 409 (2010). Also, “once the issue of self-defense is injected and evidentially supported, (t)he burden of proof to exclude the possibility that the killing was done in self-defense rests on the prosecution.” People v. Jackson, 390 Mich. 621, 626, 212 N.W.2d 918, 920 (1973).

In People v Reese, 491 Mich 127, 155-56; 815 NW2d 85, 87 (2012), when the defendant claimed that he was entitled to self-defense, the Supreme Court also addressed this claim because the court was of the opinion that once the defendant satisfies the initial burden of proving self-defense, the burden of disproving it lies on the prosecution. Id. at 101. Accordingly, the court was satisfied by the initial proofs provided by the defendant by producing some evidence to conclude that the elements necessary to establish a prima facie defense of self-defense exists and held that defendant has satisfied his initial burden of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.

In short, the allocation of burden of proof is well settled in the Court of Appeals and it was held that:

. . . once the defendant injects the issue of self-defense and satisfies the initial burden of producing some evidence from which a jury could conclude that the elements necessary to establish a prima facie defense of self-defense exist, the prosecution bears the burden of proof to exclude the possibility that the killing was done in self-defense.

People v. Dupree, 486 Mich. 693, 709-10, 788 N.W.2d 399, 408 (2010).

To conclude, “the prosecution bears the burden of disproving the common law defense of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id.

Factors determined by the court

Based on the foregoing, once the defendant satisfies the initial burden of producing evidence to establish a self-defense claim, the burden of proof rests on the people or the prosecution to prove the contrary. But there are some factors determined by the court in when a defendant raises self-defense.

“With the enactment of the Self–Defense Act (SDA), MCL 780.971 et seq., the Legislature codified the circumstances in which a person may use deadly force in self-defense or in defense of another person without having the duty to retreat.” People v. Dupree, 486 Mich. 693, 713-14, 788 N.W.2d 399, 407 (2010). “A finding that a defendant acted in justifiable self-defense necessarily requires a finding that the defendant acted intentionally, but that the circumstances justified his actions.” Id.

Hence to satisfy the elements of self-defense, the defendant must produce some evidence from which the jury could conclude the following:

  1. A) The threatening conduct was sufficient to create in the mind of a reasonable person the fear of death or serious bodily harm;
  2. B) The conduct in fact caused such fear of death or serious bodily harm in the mind of the defendant;
  3. C) The fear or duress was operating upon the mind of the defendant at the time of the alleged act; and
  4. D) The defendant committed the act to avoid the threatened harm.

Id. at 410.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court emphasized that “a person is never required to retreat from a sudden, fierce, and violent attack; nor is he required to retreat from an attacker who he reasonably believes is about to use a deadly weapon.” People v. Bailey, 485 Mich. 1083, 1084, 777 N.W.2d 424 (2010). But, “[t]he necessity element of self-defense normally requires that the actor try to avoid the use of deadly force if he can safely and reasonably do so, for example by applying non deadly force or by utilizing an obvious and safe avenue of retreat.” Id. “Such a defender, not being entirely free from fault, must not resort to deadly force if there is any other reasonable method of saving himself. Hence if a reasonable avenue of escape is available to him he must take it unless he is in his ‘castle’ at the time.” Id. at 425.

While determining what a lawful self-defense is, the Supreme Court explained that “an act committed in self-defense but with excessive force or in which defendant was the initial aggressor does not meet the elements of lawful self-defense.” Id. It is generally held that “the aggressor is the one who first does acts of such nature as would ordinarily lead to a deadly combat or as would put the other person involved in fear of death or serious bodily injury.” Id.

Thus, “a claim of self-defense, which is founded upon necessity, real or apparent, may be raised by a non-aggressor as a legal justification for an otherwise intentional homicide.” People v Riddle, 467 Mich 116, 126; 649 NW2d 30, 38 (2002). But to the contrast, “where a defendant invites trouble or meets non-imminent force with deadly force, his failure to pursue an available, safe avenue of escape might properly be brought to the attention of the factfinder as a factor in determining whether the defendant acted in reasonable self-defense.” Id. at 39. It is well established that the “claim of self-defense is necessity. As part and parcel of the necessity requirement that inheres in every claim of lawful self-defense, evidence that a defendant could have safely avoided using deadly force is normally relevant in determining whether it was reasonably necessary for him to kill his assailant.” People v Richardson, 490 Mich 115, 130; 803 NW2d 302, 310 (2011).

In People v. Heflin, 434 Mich. 482, 456 N.W.2d 10 (1990), the court observed that the killing of another person in self-defense is justifiable homicide if the defendant honestly and reasonably believes that his life is in imminent danger or that there is a threat of serious bodily harm. Id. at 21. Thus, an act committed in self-defense which conforms to this definition constitutes a lawful act. Id. However, an act committed in self-defense but with excessive force or in which defendant was the initial aggressor does not meet the elements of lawful self-defense. Id.

 CONCLUSION

Based on the foregoing it is evident that once the issue of self-defense is injected and evidentially supported, the burden of proof to exclude the possibility that the killing was done in self-defense rests on the prosecution. The factors determined by the court in considering the claims for lawful self-defense depends on the extent to which the defendant has satisfied the elements of self-defense as per law.