Self Defense as a Criminal Defense

We all know that there’s more than one side to every story. When criminal charges are brought against someone for a crime involving force, such as assault or murder, it is critical that the defendant and alleged victim alike have the opportunity to tell their side of the story. In some criminal cases, it may be revealed through the legal process that the defendant acted in their own self-defense. Criminal cases involving self-defense can be extremely complicated to litigate. To protect your rights and ensure your voice is heard, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Best & Brock takes pride in preserving our client’s stories. Reach out by calling (423) 829-1055 or by filling out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.

Self-defense is using force to protect yourself from attempted injury by another. Under specific circumstances, self-defense can be applied as a defense in a criminal trial. Each jurisdiction treats self-defense and its legal applications differently. Best & Brock is well-versed in the self-defense statutes of Tennessee and Georgia and will work tirelessly to prove your self-defense in court.

Self-Defense as a Criminal Defense in Tennessee

Tennessee’s regulations on the use of self-defense as a criminal defense are laid out in Tennessee Code Annotated §39-11-611. This law maintains that a person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and who is in a place they have a lawful right to be in has no duty to retreat before threatening to use or using force “intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury,” but only when they reasonably believe said force is immediately necessary to protect against another person’s use of force or against imminent danger. This law is full of loaded legal terms that the courts are charged with interpreting. For example, the term “immediately necessary” can make or break the availability of self-defense as a criminal defense. A defendant will not have access to a self-defense strategy in court if they acted before danger was imminent or after the danger had passed.

The statute further states that any person using or threatening to use lethal force within a residence, business, or automobile is presumed to have held a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury (to themself or other occupants) when someone unlawfully and forcibly enters said premises. This defends those who use force to, for example, protect themselves from home intruders.

There are certain situations where this defense is not applicable, however. This includes when the person whom force is used against (that is to say, the “victim”) is a law enforcement officer performing their official duties. The use of force is also not legally justified when the defendant provoked or consented to the other person’s use or attempted use of force. Self-defense, therefore, is often not applicable in cases related to fights between two persons consenting to engage in that fight, unless the defendant attempted to disengage from the encounter and the other person nevertheless continued to use force.

Furthermore, “in all cases of self-defense, the force used must be reasonable, considering all of the circumstances,” therefore the defendant’s use of force may not be greater than was necessary to protect the defendant from the threatened or actual use of force (State v. Renner, 912 S.W.2d 701, 704 (Tenn. 1995)).

Self-defense is a general defense in Tennessee’s courts, and juries should be instructed on its application during a criminal trial if the defense is fairly raised by the proof. Best & Brock’s criminal defense attorneys will pursue every available legal avenue to prove that self-defense is applicable to your charges. Once the jury has been instructed on the application of self-defense as a criminal defense, the burden shifts to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defense does not apply in your case (State v. Benson, 600 S.W.3d 896 (Tenn. 2020). If the jury determines during trial that the defendant acted in self-defense, this is considered a complete defense against criminal liability, even in murder cases (State v. Hawkins, 406 S.W.3d 121 (Tenn. 2013)).

Self-Defense as a Criminal Defense in Georgia

Under the official code of Georgia, self-defense can justify the use of force in certain cases. O.C.G.A. §16-3-23 states that use of force is justified to the extent that a defendant reasonably believes that force is necessary to defend a habitation from unlawful entry or attack. Deadly force is only justified under this statute in certain circumstances, however, including when the defendant reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent or terminate an attempted felony within the habitation. This is sometimes referred to as a “stand your ground” law (See O.C.G.A. §16-3-23.1).

In terms of self-defense outside of the home, the statute continues on to say that use of force may be justified when necessary to defend property other than a habitation from trespass or other tortious criminal interference. Again, the use of deadly force is only justified when the defendant reasonably believes it necessary to prevent the commission of a felony. (O.C.G.A.§16-3-24)

But what about defense of the self or others, rather than defense of property? Georgia has a statute for these scenarios, too. O.C.G.A. §16-3-21 provides that a person is justified in using force to defend themself or others from another person’s “imminent use of unlawful force.” If the force used in self-defense is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm, it is only justified when the defendant reasonably believes that level of force was necessary to protect against death or great bodily injury. This may sound confusing, but it effectively means that deadly force must only be used in proportion to the potential harm it protects against.

The self-defense statute is not always applicable in criminal cases in Georgia. Defendants are excluded from accessing self-defense as a criminal defense when they initially provoked the use of force as an excuse to inflict harm, committed or attempted to commit a felony, or agreed to engage in combat and never communicated to the other party that they wished to withdraw from said combat. This blocks most people consensually engaged in fights from accessing a self-defense strategy in court.

A defendant can raise self-defense at a criminal trial in Georgia when slight evidence supports it, regardless of if the theory of self-defense conflicts with any other theory raised by the defense counsel (McClure v. State, 306 Ga. 856, 858-859 (1), 864 (1) & n.17, 834 S.E.2d 96 (2019)). Once self-defense has been raised by the evidence, the jury will receive an instruction on self-defense. In their deliberations, the jury will be responsible for determining whether or not the defendant acted in self-defense.

In some murder cases in Georgia, the defendant may offer proof that they were a victim of domestic violence committed by the deceased in order to establish that they reasonably feared imminent bodily injury or death at the time of the murder. Relevant expert testimony may also be entered into evidence to testify to the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the murder, including the incidents of family violence leading up to the murder. (O.C.G.A. §16-3-21(d)). Best & Brock Can Help!

Whether or not self-defense is an available criminal defense, and whether you should attempt to access this criminal defense, is a matter you simply must consult with a criminal defense attorney about. Best & Brock’s skilled criminal defense attorneys have resolved diverse cases and understand how to navigate the complex legal terrain of your self-defense case.