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Self Defense and Homicide Charges in Louisiana

As a Louisiana criminal defense attorney who represents defendants charged with homicide, I have heard more than once “it wasn’t my fault – I was acting in self defense.”  This can be a legitimate defense to a homicide charge under certain circumstances. Under the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, homicide is justifiable when committed in self defense by someone who reasonably believes they are in imminent danger of losing their life or sustaining great bodily harm, and the killing is necessary to stop the attack.

An Example of Self Defense

Here’s an example of justifiable homicide committed in self defense:  Say you have two men who have a confrontation in a bar. One man, Paul, grabs a pool stick and begins violently beating Joe.  Joe is on the floor and begins to fear for his life.  Suppose that Joe has a knife in his pocket and stabs Paul, fatally wounding him. Legally, Joe can claim self-defense since he believed he could be killed or hurt badly by Paul.

An Exception to the Self Defense Rule

The person who started the fight cannot claim a murder was committed in self defense unless they made it clear that they no longer want to fight, and the victim attacked after that point.  So if Joe gains control of the pool stick and starts beating Paul, and then Paul runs out of the bar – Paul is indicating that he wishes to withdraw from the fight. If Joe follows Paul out of the bar and starts to violently beat him and Paul kills Joe, then Paul can legitimately claim self defense.

Proving Self Defense at Trial

In most situations, evidence about the defendant or victim’s character and past actions is generally not admissible in a criminal trial. The idea is that you cannot attempt to convict a person of a charge by showing he was a bad person in the past – he is on trial for a specific charge and only facts relevant to that charge can be introduced as evidence.  However, for homicide cases where the defendant claims the murder was committed in self defense, the defendant’s homicide lawyer may be able to bring in evidence of the victim’s character.  If the deceased victim was a clear badass with a history of stabbing people and violently beating people in bars – this information could be considered relevant.  The victim’s history of violence could show the state of mind of the defendant – i.e. that he was scared of the victim. It might also show that the victim was the initial aggressor in the fight.

To claim self defense in a Louisiana homicide case, you need to show that you had a reasonable belief that your life was in danger and you cannot be the original aggressor.  If you started the fight, the only way to assert self defense is to show that you withdrew from the fight in an obvious way – such as running away – and then had to defend yourself from the victim’s attack.  If the victim was known to be violent, you may be able to bring in evidence of the victim’s character in your efforts to prove self defense. Finally, if you do claim self defense for a homicide charge, it is the state which has the burden of proof — this means the state must prove you were not acting in self defense.

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