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Self-Defense in America: Kyle Rittenhouse vs. Ahmaud Arbery vs. Trayvon Martin
How self-defense works
(NOTE: Nothing in this column should be considered legal advice and it’s again worth noting that although the laws across the country are roughly similar, there can be some rather significant differences from state to state. Additionally, there can be terrible consequences for using lethal force, even if it’s a clear-cut case of self-defense. Don’t take it lightly because even if you are 100% in the right if you seriously injure someone in self-defense, it has the potential to wreck your life).
Over the last few years in America, we’ve had a number of highly controversial cases that revolved around cases of self-defense. In most of these cases, the mainstream media was usually guilty of pumping out a tidal wave of misinformation the public had to sort through while simultaneously turning these law enforcement issues into partisan flashpoints with liberals (and sometimes conservatives), mindlessly cheerleading for the participant they believed was on their “side,” when everyone should have just been hoping that justice was done under the law.
That being said, because of all this misinformation, along with differing laws in differing parts of the country, there does actually appear to be a bit of genuine puzzlement among some people about what constitutes self-defense and what doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s not as clear as you may think.
For example, let’s say you turn a corner, and you see one guy on top of another raining punches down on his opponent’s bloody head. You, being a good Samaritan, run in to help the guy on the bottom and seriously injure the man who was punching him. Congratulations. You just helped a mugger who was being beaten by his “victim.” You may be held criminally liable, and you will DEFINITELY be civilly liable for your mistake.
Here's another situation. You are minding your own business when a crazy, old woman half your size starts yelling at you for no reason at all. The two of you have words, and she slaps you. You pick up a two-by-four off the ground and hit her with it. It breaks her jaw and knocks her unconscious. Guess what? YOU would probably be the one who ended up in jail for using excessive force.
So, let’s start with some very general principles of self-defense when it comes to defining whether someone is justified in using potentially deadly force.
1) First of all, are you clearly the aggressor (say a home invader), clearly just defending yourself (let’s say someone you don’t know is attacking you for no reason), or is it more of a muddled situation (you and another guy were talking trash to each other in a bar and started throwing hands)? If someone gets seriously injured or killed, you ideally want to be the one who was clearly defending himself and you absolutely don’t want to be the aggressor.
2) Even if you are the one defending yourself, you still aren’t allowed to use “excessive force.” In other words, if you are the one defending yourself with potentially lethal force, would a reasonable person be in fear of their life in that situation? For example, if you get in a schoolyard scuffle where a few punches are thrown on both sides and you pull out a knife and stab the kid you’re fighting with, claiming it’s okay because of “self-defense” isn’t going to fly. Similarly, if someone kicked the side of your car and yelled, “F*** you!” you couldn’t make a case that you were defending yourself if you ran over them. If a mob surrounds your car, screams threats, and tries to get in, you may be able to make a case that you had no choice other than to gun it even though you ran over one of your attackers. (Jennifer Watson, who was the driver of the car in this video, was surrounded by a mob that attacked her car, threatened her, and cracked her windshield. She was found innocent of assault, but did get a misdemeanor reckless driving charge.)
3) Although not every state requires someone who is being attacked to try to withdraw from the situation, it is certainly going to help your case if you can say you were trying to get away but were unable to do so. If you and I get in a fight, you run from me and I chase you down to beat you to death, there is no way I can claim that I was only “defending myself.”
So, let’s take a very quick look at the three famous cases listed in the title, two of which have not made their way all the way through the court system as of yet.
First of all, in the Kyle Rittenhouse case, when it comes to #1, he was clearly the defender each time he shot. In all three cases that he fired, he had good reason to think that he could lose his weapon in a struggle, which could have cost him his life, so he’s solid on #2. Rittenhouse also literally ran from the people attacking him. This was about as clear a case of self-defense as you will ever see outside of someone’s home.
In the Ahmad Arbery case, Arbery was out jogging and Gregory McMichael thought he looked like someone who may have been involved in a number of burglaries that had supposedly occurred (they had not been reported to the police). Gregory and Travis McMichael decided to make a “citizen’s arrest” of Arbery, which would have only been legal at the time if they had seen the suspect “committing a serious crime,” which they had not. Ultimately, Gregory and Travis McMichael, who were both armed, blocked the road in front of Arbery in a truck while William Bryan blocked the road behind him, trapping Arbery between them. Arbery, who was unarmed, tried to get around the truck and although we can’t see everything that happened, a struggle for the gun with Travis McMichael ensued and Arbery was shot to death.
So, how does this case stack up? On #1, the McMichaels were clearly the aggressors, since Arbery had no idea who they were and wasn’t looking for a conflict with them. Being surrounded on both sides by armed people you don’t know who are stalking you is also a good reason to think that your life is in danger. So, the McMichaels fail that test as well. Also, given that Arbery was blocked in front and behind, he really had no opportunity to escape. He had little choice other than to either wrestle McMichael for the gun or throw himself on the mercy of the armed men hunting him through the streets for unknown reasons. McMichael claiming self-defense, in this case, is basically the equivalent of a mugger saying he’s not responsible for his victim’s death because there was a struggle over the gun, and he had to kill him in self-defense. All three of them, and especially Travis McMichael, deserve to go to prison.
Although opinions over the Trayvon Martin incident became very heated, it was actually a sad and ambiguous case. Martin was walking through an apartment complex and George Zimmerman, who was part of the neighborhood watch, decided to follow him, against the advice of the police who he had called because he thought Martin might be responsible for a string of burglaries. Martin quite naturally became alarmed that he was being followed and ran. Somehow, the two of them ended up in a confrontation. We don’t know exactly how it started (Zimmerman says Martin attacked him, but Martin can’t give his side of the story, and no one saw who swung first), but we do know it apparently ended with Martin slamming the back of Zimmerman’s head into the ground and Zimmerman responding by shooting him.
This is a more complicated case than the first two. When it comes to #1, it was more muddled. Martin did have reason to be alarmed about Zimmerman following him, but “alarmed” isn’t the same thing as “threatened” or “in fear for his life.” We also can’t definitively say who threw the first punch, although it does appear likely that Martin instigated the final confrontation. So, who was the aggressor? We don’t know. When it comes to #2, there were witnesses who saw Martin slamming Zimmerman’s head into the ground and the blood on the back of his head is consistent with that. Did Zimmerman have reason to fear for his life in that situation? He claims that he did and given the damage that was done, that seems like a reasonable assumption. #3 is also a bit ambiguous because Martin apparently ran, and Zimmerman lost sight of him. If Martin had wanted to go to his father's fiancée’s apartment, which was roughly 70 yards from where he died, it seems likely that he would have made it. Instead, it appears that he chose to either wait or double back to confront Zimmerman. Ultimately, Zimmerman was found not guilty and while that seems like the right call, it’s hard not to feel sorry for a 17-year-old, who, as far as we know, wasn’t doing anything wrong at the time, but ultimately ended up losing his life because a stranger irresponsibly decided to follow him.
This is all important because as a society, we are increasingly mixing politics with the implementation of existing laws, which is a recipe for disaster. Long term, America isn’t going to function very well if there’s one standard of justice for Hillary Clinton, ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter, illegal Immigrants, shoplifters, looters, rioters, and other favored liberal groups and one standard for everyone else. Either the law means something and should be respected, or it doesn’t and there’s nothing morally wrong with flouting it at every opportunity. Allowing people to break the law because you sympathize with them politically or trying to put people in jail because of political disagreements is very dangerous. It destroys the rule of law and could even eventually lead to the death of our republic. After all, if the only way to protect “your side” from false prosecutions because of your political beliefs is to be in charge, then that’s a reasonable argument for making it happen via hook or crook. The law of the land isn’t supposed to be one more politically driven issue and it’s time we start respecting it.