“The gun just went off!”
“It was an accident!”
“I didn’t mean to shoot him!”
Self-defense is an intentional act. In essence, you are saying “Yes, I did it, and I would do it again if put in the same position.” The law acknowledges this, and a sure fire way to have a judge not provide the jury with the instructions on self-defense is to, in the immediate aftermath, say something that provides the appearance that your actions were not intentional. If the jury doesn’t have the instructions, it is going to be very difficult for them to put themselves in your shoes in order to determine whether you were objectively reasonable.
None of the above statements indicate you intended to act at the time you are claiming self-defense, and thus, the law says you could not have been defending yourself. Let’s take a look at a real life example. Take a look at this line of questioning of a defendant at trial by a prosecutor:
Q: And, you were going to protect your home with an unloaded shotgun; is that right? A: Yes. Q: What were you going to do, sir? It was unloaded. A: Well, I seen people back up if they see the object. Q: So, you came downstairs with an unloaded shotgun. Thomas Hooper didn’t back away; did he? A: No, [he] didn’t. Q: So, it was only then you thought I better go back up stairs and load the shotgun; is that what you thought sir? A: Well, I went back up stairs to think things out and then I decided to put the shotgun shell in. Q: So, you thought about it for awhile, is that right? A: Right. Q: And, Thomas Hooper, he never came up the steps after you; did he, sir? A: No, he never did, but he was inching for the steps. Q: But, he never came up to where you were; was he? A: No. Q: So, you loaded that shotgun; is that right? A: Yes. Q: What did you cock the hammer for, sir? A: You can’t shoot until you cock the hammer back. Q: So, you knew that you were going to shoot the gun? A: No. Q: So, why cock the hammer if you’re not sure you’re going to shoot the gun? A: To protect myself because I know him to carry a gun in the past. Q: That’s how the gun went accidentally off? A: It went off because of me backing up, is from my wife trying to grab it, and he trying to grab it. * * * * * * 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. A: No.
If you are imagining your self-defense claim goes down the tubes here, you would be correct. You can’t claim it was an accident and also self-defense at the same time. If it was an accident, you are going to be missing one or more of the elements of a valid self-defense claim.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court took a dim view of this self-defense claim:
[W]hen he took the stand and denied that the shooting was intentional and, instead, said it was caused by mistake or accident as he backed up the stairs, he 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.
Take a look at Commonwealth v. Harris, 665 A.2d 1172 (Pa. 1995) for how this case played out.