In this chapter, we explore the law of self-defense. As an initial matter, it is good to be reminded that there is not a single “law of self-defense.” Each state recognizes the defense, but our federalist system allows each to define and understand it differently. Given the variety, indeed the discrepancy, of understandings, it is difficult to draw meaningful generalizations. Therefore, we have chosen to organize these materials by broad substantive topics, discussing the general nature of self-defense and then illustrating and critiquing, where appropriate, some of its dominant variations. We have chosen this approach because it makes little sense to suggest that counsel in any given case will set out to use that case to change the law; counsel is required to represent her client within the bounds of the law and to work with the law as it is in the jurisdiction. Virtually no lawyer would ignore the law of the jurisdiction in favor of sacrificing the client toward the end of modifying some legal standard. At most, if defense of the client fails, an appellate court may be persuaded to modify legal understandings. But for the most part, real change in the law comes from the legislature and those changes are slow to be realized.
In these materials, then, we take the law as it is and find that, in some important respects, it is evolving fairly well; that is, some important concepts defining self-defense are becoming more broadly understood, hence the defense is not as narrowly available as it once was. Beyond that, we discover that changes in the rules of evidence governing the admission of ex-