Murder And The Defense of Self-Defense

In the wake of the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman, for shooting and killing Travon Martin, a young teenage boy, people are struggling to understand how the jury came to the decision that it did. To understand the jury’s decision, it is important to understand the defense of self-defense, and what constitutes self-defense. Also important to understand is the charge of second-degree murder and what elements must be met to charge and convict someone of this crime.

As we know, in the People vs. Zimmerman case, the District Attorney charged George Zimmerman with second-degree murder. However, the elements to convict someone of this crime were not met. The charge of second-degree murder, typically involves someone killing another person “impulsively and without premeditation”. However, the law defines second-degree murder, and it’s elements as follows:

1. That you committed an act that resulted in the death of another person – In the People v. Zimmerman case, we know this to be true. 

2. That it was committed with malice aforethought – To determine if this element existed, we must first understand what “malice aforethought” means. 
Basically, it means that at the moment the murder occurred, the killer intended to kill the victim, but prior to that moment had no intent to do so.

3. It was without lawful excuse or justification – Is self-defense considered a “lawful excuse” or “justification”? In the eyes of the law, yes.

Self-defense is a legal defense that excuses conduct, which would otherwise be criminal. However, California self-defense laws are very specific and do not apply to all situations. The following are conditions that must be met in order to justify self-defense:

1. A reasonable belief that you are in imminent danger of being killed, seriously injured, or unlawfully touched.

2. A belief that immediate force is necessary to prevent that danger, and
3. That you use no more force than is necessary to defend yourself against that danger.

The true meaning of self-defense isn’t perfectly clear, but when asserted properly becomes a legal defense that can result in immunity against prosecution or acquittal as we saw in the Zimmerman case.

Another documented case where the defense of self-defense was successfully argued is People vs. Deiran Green, in which the defendant was indicted for malice murder, felony murder aggravated assault, and possession of a knife during the commission of a felony after he punctured the femoral nerve of a man with a knife during a physical struggle. Green filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that he was immune from prosecution under the self-defense laws.

The Court determined that Green never intended to stab or injure Waldon, the victim; that he had taken the knife with him because he didn’t trust Waldon and further that Green told Waldon he wasn’t going to hurt him, that he just wanted his rent money. The trial court granted Green’s motion finding that Waldon had attacked Green, reasonably putting Green in fear for his life.

The State appealed the trial court’s decision stating that there was no justification for the self-defense defense because the use of force is a necessary prerequisite and that there was no evidence that Green used force against Waldon. However, the appellate court confirmed the trial court’s findings, stating that defendant would have been justified in using deadly force against Waldon to protect himself, although he was not required to do so in order to be immune from prosecution.

The laws regarding murder and the defenses thereto are complicated. Each case has unique circumstances that must be carefully examined to determine exactly what type of charge is appropriate and what type of defense may apply.

If you would like to know more about murder laws and the defenses thereto, contact Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney William Weinberg at his Irvine, CA office at 949-474-8008 or at