Self-Defense: An Internationally Utilized Justification for Murder

BY KELSEY HAYDEN — The United States has become exceptionally familiar with the first and second-degree murder shield of self-defense. The heavily broadcasted case of George Zimmerman made headlines nationwide in 2013, as the neighborhood watch volunteer escaped second-degree murder charges using a claim of self-defense.[i] Less than one year later, Michael Dunn was charged with first-degree murder after fatally shooting a Florida teen following a spat over loud music.[ii] Despite the consensus that Dunn had shot the teen, the jury declared a mistrial because of the ambiguity of whether Dunn had acted in self-defense, as Dunn claimed he had. Politicians in the highest offices of the United States have released statements urging states to review and scrutinize their self-defense laws.[iii]

The United States is not the only country with laws that justify murder in the name of self-defense. University of Chicago law professor, Tom Ginsburg, recently stated that “legal developments in the U.S. coincide with more aggressive interpretations of self-defense laws in countries including Belgium, Italy and Britain, and may help drive more far-reaching interpretations of self-defense theory in other parts of the world.”[iv] In fact, Turkey, Peru, Paraguay, and Kazakhstan have amended their respective constitutions in order to specify a right to self-defense.[v]

Self-defense laws in South Africa are currently under analysis as Paralympic and Olympic sprinter, Oscar Pistorius, stands trial for the murder of his former girlfriend and model, Reeva Steenkamp.[vi] Pistorius rose to fame as the double amputee who won six Paralympic gold medals. Nicknamed the “Blade Runner” because of his prostheses, Pistorius became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics.[vii] Pistorius and Steenkamp were a seemingly perfect couple. However, on Valentine’s Day 2013, Steenkamp laid lifeless in a pool of her own blood on the floor of Pistorius’s bathroom.[viii] Moments before, Pistorius had fired four bullets from his 9mm pistol through the closed and locked bathroom door.[ix] Pistorius is not claiming self-defense, but rather he claims he was mistaken about his need to utilize self-defense.[x] He alleges that he heard a noise coming from the bathroom, felt vulnerable because he did not have his prostheses on, and feared someone had broken in through the bathroom window.[xi] He claims that he needed to protect himself and Steenkamp so he grabbed his gun and fired through the bathroom door.[xii] The evidence against Pistorius seems to tell a different story. Prosecutors refute Pistorius’s form of a self-defense claim, saying the murder was pre-meditated.[xiii]

Universally, the claim of self-defense, or the reasonable use of violence to protect oneself, is fundamental. It can be traced back to Roman law and has been incorporated into modern international bodies of law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[xiv] However, the inherent right to life is also prevalent in international law.[xv] Most notably, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right sets forth that “[e]very human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”[xvi] Thus, it is left to individual states, through ratification and adherence to decipher where the line should be drawn between the inherent right to defend oneself through deadly but justifiable use of force and the inherent right to not be deprived of one’s life.

Based on the Zimmerman and Dunn verdicts, and the recognition of self-defense principles in Constitutions around the world, Ginsburg seems to be correct in his belief that countries are beginning to mirror the United States in drawing the line more favorably towards the right of self-defense. It is likely that South African judge, Thokozile Masipa, will consider this international trend in deciding whether Pistorius’s mistaken belief of the need for self-defense was reasonable, and therefore justifiable, despite the resulting murder.

[v] Id.

[vii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xvi] Id. 

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