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  • Kailey Ritchie

The interpretation of imminency for self-defense in nonconfrontational homicides.

TW: Mentions of Domestic Violence

Self-defense is considered a justification for homicide under the law, contingent upon four general elements: (1) at the time of the act, the defendant believed that they were in imminent danger of unlawful bodily harm; (2) the defendant used a reasonable amount of force to respond to the threatened danger; (3) they were not the initial aggressor; and (4) they had no opportunity to retreat safely. This definition seemingly encapsulates the circumstances under which a person commits homicide in self-defense, but courts have an incredibly narrow interpretation of the defense regarding the meaning of “imminent danger.” Several courts, including the Supreme Court of North Carolina in State v. Norman, have interpreted imminent danger to mean immediate danger.  This interpretation does not account for survivors of domestic violence who commit homicide in self-defense against their abusive partners as a result of suffering severe ongoing abuse.

As men constitute the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of domestic violence in heterosexual relationships, one must consider the physical disparities between female victims and male perpetrators. It is unjust to only interpret self-defense as applicable to situations of immediate danger, as in many situations women are likely physically dominated and unable to adequately defend  themselves. In the prioritization of their own safety, survivors might not even attempt to resist their abusers out of fear of severe injury or death.  The reality of domestic violence is that survivors cannot always defend themselves in times of immediate danger but are unfortunately always facing impending danger posed by an abusive partner.  


In the Norman case, Judy Norman was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after killing her sleeping abusive partner despite the fact that, as noted by the dissent, she “was held hostage to her husband’s abuse for two decades” and “incarcerated by abuse, fear, and by her conviction that her husband was invincible and inescapable.”  Even imperfect self-defense, which only requires a defendant to meet a subjective standard of acting on reasonable fear, still requires the defendant to demonstrate an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm. 

Because imminency requires immediate danger, appellate courts rarely instruct the jury on self-defense for nonconfrontational homicides of an abusive partner without evidence of the outdatedly titled “battered women’s syndrome.”  This defense has allowed courts, such as the Maryland Appellate Court in State v. Peterson, to interpret imminency differently, making it applicable to instances of ongoing abuse because the persistent violence caused severe psychological harm to the survivor. However, the defense has a detrimental impact on the domestic violence survivor community as a whole, as it implies the existence of mental incapacity. Additionally, it disregards the rationale of victims who are unable to escape their situations and are compelled to retaliate for their own safety and often the safety of their children. Ultimately, this defense creates a problematic perception of survivors while offering no real benefit. Criminal defense attorneys continue to utilize it despite juries often being unsympathetic and unable to make a distinction between a victim of psychological torment and an intentional killer, resulting in the incarceration of victims.


Courts must recognize that survivors of severe ongoing abuse are constantly in imminent danger, though not immediate, due to the power dynamic between a perpetrator of domestic violence and their victim.  Privileged perceptions of extremely abusive relationships evoke the argument that killing is never the answer, and survivors have outlets to leave.  However, many survivors of domestic violence face several barriers to leaving, including not having the financial means, and are often in the most danger from their abusers when they leave or try to leave. Those outside of abusive relationships cannot fully grasp the constant fear experienced by survivors.  Interpreting the imminency element of self-defense as meaning desperation rather than requiring evidence that a woman is “battered,” is the appropriate justification for nonconfrontational homicides of perpetrators of domestic violence, as it reflects the lived experiences of survivors without stigmatization. 


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