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When self-defense results in murder charges

On Behalf of | Feb 24, 2023 | Criminal law

A common legal defense against violent crime charges is to claim that the accused was acting in self-defense or attempting to protect others. While this is a legitimate legal strategy, there seem to be disparities in who is allowed to use it and how effective it is.

In this post, we’ll discuss the self-defense argument and why it is so important to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

One case highlighting a larger problem

In March 2020, a woman named Tracy was charged with murder in New York after the death of her estranged husband. She admitted to killing him, but claimed she was acting in self-defense. According to news sources, Tracy was a long-time domestic violence victim who was forced to defend herself many times. On this particular occasion, her defense efforts proved fatal to her alleged abuser.

She was imprisoned at Rikers Island for six months, then spent another two years in home detention, unsure of her fate. In December 2022, the district attorney overseeing her case announced that he would not move forward with her prosecution. She cannot get those two-and-a-half years back, but this case ultimately ended better for Tracy than it typically does for others in her position.

Tracy is now using her public platform to advocate for other domestic violence victims who she says are receiving punishment instead of help.

What New Jersey law says about self-defense

Under NJ Rev Stat § 2C:3-4, you can claim self-defense if the following conditions are met:

  • Someone was committing violence or using unlawful force against you
  • You believed it was immediately necessary to use force to protect yourself
  • You believed that you used the amount of force necessary to stop or subdue your attacker

There are, of course, exceptions to a justification of self-defense. For instance, you cannot provoke the attack simply so you can fight back. Additionally, you cannot unreasonably escalate the violence. If a stranger took a swing at you with a closed fist, for instance, it would likely not justify immediately shooting them with a gun.

Why it is critical to work with a skilled defense attorney

As you can hopefully see, the effectiveness of a self-defense claim depends heavily on the context of the attack, the details of the incident and on whether your actions are viewed as a reasonable response to the threat you faced. This is somewhat subjective and open to interpretation.

The difference between acquittal/dismissal and conviction often comes down to how effectively your side of the story is told. An experienced defense attorney will work tirelessly to show that your actions were justified under New Jersey’s self-defense laws.