Accident or Self-Defense – You Have To Pick One

March 6th, 2019 Law

I’ve been following this case out of Bucks County, PA, and it appears the defendant (I suppose I find it hard to believe an attorney would actually make this claim) wanted the jury to believe that shooting her estranged lover in the face was done “unintentionally and as an act of self defense.” If you are going down the road of self-defense, you want to avoid statements that you acted unintentionally or your acts were an accident.  Now, frankly, from what I’ve seen reported on this case, there were plenty of other issues for this young woman to negate a claim of self-defense, but trying to spin a tale involving two mutually exclusive legal defenses doesn’t help. (The fact that several other “residents” of Bucks County prison testified that she bragged about  killing her “sugar daddy” probably didn’t help.  Additional note: if you want to claim self-defense, try to avoid creating a nick name for yourself in prison such as “sugaslayer.”)

Back on topic: self-defense is an affirmative defense. It is, therefore, legally an intentional act. One you claim you did, and in fact, you would do again if put in the same situation. An accident is the exact opposite. It is unintentional. If you find yourself saying “I didn’t mean for that to happen” then you are saying it was an accident. There are not a lot of people acquitted by claiming their criminal conduct was an accident.  If a jury believes it was an accident, especially in the context of armed self-defense, you may reduce, but not eliminating your culpability. Think, going from Murder to Manslaughter. Life as you know it is still over.  It is hard for juries, with good reason, to buy that when you point a gun at someone and pull the trigger, you did not intend for the end result to happen.

In Commonwealth v. Harris, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a self-defense claim because Harris “denied that the shooting was intentional and, instead, said it was caused by mistake or accident as he backed up the stairs.”  By doing so, Harris “denied that the act was done intentionally in defense of self. Under such circumstances, therefore, a defense of self-defense is not available to such a person because it is mutually exclusive of the defense of accident or mistake.” See Commonwealth v. Harris, 665 A.2d 1172, 1175 (Pa. 1995).  

The following transcript excerpt of the prosecutor cross-examining Harris during trial  is cringe-worthy and demonstrates just how badly you can shoot yourself in the foot with a mixed message: 

Q: How did you know you were going to the district?

A: Because of the way the situation looks, because I know they had to get a report.

Q: Because you knew you did something wrong; didn’t you, sir?

A: No. It was self-defense, but it was an accident of me backing up the steps.

Q: Was it an accident, sir, or was it self-defense, because they are not the same thing.

A: Well, accident; excuse me on that.

Q: So, if it was an accident you were not fearful for your life; is that right?

A: That is right.

Q: Your life was not in jeopardy if it was an accident.

Commonwealth v. Harris, 665 A.2d 1172, 1174 (Pa. 1995).

The lesson here is if you carry a gun for self-protection, any claim of self-protection is an intentional act, not an accident.  You don’t get to present both and let the jury pick which one.*  Frankly, if your only claim is it was an accident, a trial judge is unlikely to give the jury a self-defense instruction at all.


* Always an oddball state when it comes to the law, Pennsylvania appears to permit in a very limited circumstance to allow both a self-defense and a “mistake of fact” instruction.  See Commonwealth v. Scott.  I happen to think the dissenting opinion in Scott is correct and the majority conflates one aspect of a self-defense instruction (the “reasonable, but mistaken belief” language) with a separate “mistake of fact” instruction.  Perhaps I’ll discuss Scott more fully in another post.

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