Criminal Law Class Notes 10/28/03


At common law, if you act in justifiable self-defense, you’re not guilty of any crime.  Even if you prove all the elements of the crime of murder, if you have a justification, then you’re not guilty.  Even if you have the intent to kill that usually constitutes malice, you may not be guilty of the offense.


What if you shoot someone in self-defense, but the gun wasn’t loaded and neither the defendant nor the victim knew that?  Will the defendant still get acquitted of murder?  Yes.  We would say that the defendant had a reasonable belief that the victim was a deadly threat.  Under the reasonable belief requirement, even though the person couldn’t have killed the defendant, the defendant still is acquitted even though what he did was objectively wrong.


What if it turns out that the gun was a toy gun and it was obvious to pretty much any normal person that the gun wasn’t real?  Then the defendant loses the self-defense claim because the belief wasn’t objectively reasonable.


Model Penal Code § 3.04


When one provision of a statute refers to another provision, you must consult both provisions.


This statute uses the word “immediately necessary” rather than “imminent”.  The provision is general.  The deadly force provision is § 3.04(2)(b).  Even if you meet § 3.04(1), there are additional conditions in order for a valid justification to be constructed.


You can use deadly force to defend against potential crimes other than murder.


In the first hypothetical, we have the same result at common law and under the Model Penal Code.  In the second example, the result is the same.  On the other hand, in the “toy gun” example, the Model Penal Code would find the defendant subject to the lesser charge of negligent homicide.


If an actor’s belief is sincere but reckless or negligent, the actor isn’t justified as far as reckless or negligent offenses.  If the defendant was negligent in believing that a toy gun was actually real, then under the Model Penal Code the defendant wouldn’t be guilty of murder.  The defendant would be guilty of negligent homicide if the defendant was negligent, and the defendant would be guilty of manslaughter if the defendant was reckless.


What the Model Penal Code does that is dramatically different from common law is that it doesn’t like the “all-or-nothing” proposition.  In the three situations above, the defendant is not guilty in the first case, not guilty in the second case, but fully guilty in the third case.  On the other hand, the Model Penal Code allows conviction for a lesser crime in the third case.


People v. Goetz


The four victims got on a subway to Manhattan.  Goetz arrives on the subway later, carrying an unlicensed gun with five bullets.  The victims asked him for five dollars.  He immediately stood up and started shooting the victims one by one.  He shot again at one of the victims.


What is the issue on appeal?  Goetz wanted the charges dismissed because he said that the Grand Jury instructions were erroneous.  The trial court and intermediate appellate court bought his argument.  What was the alleged improper instruction?  He felt that the prosecution gave an objective standard whereas the standard should have been subjective based on the statute.  The intermediate appellate court argued that the emphasis in the phrase “he reasonably believes” is on “he”.  That becomes a subjective standard because we’re not interested in what a reasonable person would do, but rather whether the defendant thought he was doing a reasonable thing.


The thing is that the defendant will obviously think that what he’s doing is reasonable.  But the defendant may be an unreasonable person.


The Court of Appeals of New York rules that the statute was meant to create an objective standard.  But how objective did the legislature intend it to be?  Who is that reasonable person?


Note that Goetz was later acquitted of all the charges except the weapons charge.


Carter suggests two different explanations.  There is both theory and practice: juries don’t always follow the law.  The jury might have accepted the “rapid-fire” theory as either showing a lacking of voluntary act, an excuse, or a lack of mens rea.  On the other hand, they might have just reacted to being mad about crime and thought that the victims got what they deserved.  That would be a justification or moral forfeiture theory.


The attorney for Goetz, in his closing, used both of these arguments.  They also called the victims “The Gang of Four”.  The jury was given two different ways to imagine why they wanted to acquit.  They might have also just nullified.


What is a reasonable belief?


What facts are relevant in deciding whether Goetz’s belief was reasonable?  Goetz didn’t know that the victims were armed with screwdrivers.  That was a “lucky break” in some sense.


Goetz had been mugged before, and the court decided that this was relevant.  The more similar the prior muggings were to the present case, the more relevant they would be.


Often, pieces of evidence that can be helpful for one purpose may hurt your case in some other way.


Would a reasonable person take into consideration how the victims were dressed?  We could tell the jury not to consider how the victims were dressed.  Doesn’t everybody stereotype (or generalize)?


Do the races of the defendant and victims matter?


What’s the deal with the five dollars?  It depends on the context.  In New York City on the subway in 1986 it might mean something different than it would in Iowa.


This is a good example of why you want trials held in the community in which the crimes occurred.


How can it be justifiable to kill an objectively innocent person?  We might excuse someone for it, but maybe it wouldn’t be justified.  The common law says, on the other hand, that such an act would not be justified, but rather excused.  Dressler argues that this could create a situation where two people could justifiably kill each other.


State v. Wanrow


The basic issue in this case is bringing gender into the discussion.


Note that the facts are fishy.  It appears that this was a setup to kill a child molester.


What does this case stand for?  Does this mean that a woman who uses self-defense must be judged by the standard of a reasonable woman, or must she be judged by the objective standard of a reasonable person?


The ruling says that the defendant’s actions must be judged subjectively, not objectively.  After this case, case law has clarified this result to mean that they use a “reasonable woman” standard.


Is this a good result?  What would feminists say?  Wouldn’t it depend on whether you asked a difference feminist or an equality feminist?


Why wouldn’t we talk about a reasonable person who is 5’2” rather than a reasonable woman?  Is gender a proxy for other things?


Dressler ipsa loquitur!


The Model Penal Code chooses “designedly ambiguous” language to describe the standard of behavior: “a reasonable person in the actor’s situation”.


Back to Class Notes