Academic journal article American Journal of Criminal Law

Parsing the Reasonable Person: The Case of Self-Defense

Academic journal article American Journal of Criminal Law

Parsing the Reasonable Person: The Case of Self-Defense

Article excerpt

I. Introduction ................................................ 425

II. The Problem ................................................ 427

A. The Law of Self-Defense ................................................ 428

B. Glossing the Reasonable Person ................................................ 430

C. The Case of Innocence Programs ................................................ 433

1. A Hypothetical Defendant ................................................ 435

2. How Could an Innocence Program Respond? ................................................ 436

III. Conclusions ................................................ 437

A. The Problem in Brief ................................................ 437

B. What Do We Lose by Losing the Material-Juridical Distinction? ................................................ 437

1 . Due Process and the Innocent Man ................................................ 437

2. Assessing the Accuracy of Verdicts ................................................ 439

C. Responses ................................................ 440

1. The Role of the Reasonable Person Standard ................................................ 440

2. A Few Tentative Suggestions for Reform ................................................ 441

D. Final Thoughts ................................................ 443

I. Introduction

Mistakes are a fact of life, and the criminal law is sadly no exception to the rule. Wrongful convictions are rightfully abhorred, and false acquittals can likewise inspire outrage. In these cases, we implicitly draw a distinction between a court's finding and a defendant's actual guilt or innocence. These are intuitive concepts, but as this Note aims to show, contemporary use of the reasonable person standard in the law of selfdefense muddles them.

The point I aim to make in this Note is subtle, and because it is subtle, I must be careful with the terms I deploy. What is of concern here is not that disagreement which sometimes occurs between the verdicts of morality and the verdicts of our legal system. Rather, it is a disagreement between the facts and the decisions of our criminal tribunals. The law here is the measuring stick by which conduct is judged, and a court may err in applying it in a way demonstrable by an independent observer deploying the same metric. For example, the court says a person found dead was murdered, but an independent party can prove the court wrong, either by showing that the court's version of the facts is incorrect (the person died of a heart attack) or that the court has incorrectly applied the legal standard to the facts (mens rea was absent). The technical terms introduced below furnish a vocabulary for discussing such cases of error.

I will use the terms juridical guilt and juridical innocence to refer to the decisions of tribunals and the words material guilt and material innocence to refer to the actual match, or lack thereof, between law and fact. A person is juridically guilty if they have been found guilty by the relevant tribunals. Thus, in American law, someone is juridically guilty of a crime if he has been convicted by a jury, a judge has not chosen to set aside the verdict, and the conviction has been sustained if appealed. On the other hand, material guilt requires having actually committed the crime in question. For example, a person is materially guilty of common law burglary if and only if he actually broke into and entered a dwelling at night with the intent to commit a felony.1

Analogously, juridical innocence means being found not to have committed a crime or having been tried and acquitted by the relevant tribunals.2 In the American context, juridical innocence corresponds to being acquitted by a jury or fact-based dismissals with prejudice by a judge.3 In contrast, a person is materially innocent if and only if she did not, in fact, commit the specified crime. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.