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Can killing an abuser be considered self-defense?

Dec 30, 2022 | Violent Crimes

Sometimes victims of abuse decide to kill an abusive partner to escape an abusive relationship. Recent legislation in some states considers abuse when deciding whether self-defense is an appropriate defense to a murder charge.

Can killing an abuser be self-defense in California?

Murder in California

California law defines murder as unlawfully killing a person or fetus with malice aforethought. Murders with premeditation are usually charged as first-degree murders, while murders that do not involve premeditation are usually charged as second-degree murders. In some cases, homicides may receive the less serious charge of manslaughter.

Self-defense laws

To assert self-defense as a defense to a murder charge, the defendant must prove that they believed they were in immediate danger of death, serious injury, rape or being the victim of another severe crime. In the case of abuse, people who kill their abusers because they believe the abuser is an immediate threat to them may successfully assert a self-defense claim. However, the law has generally not held that killing an abuser as a method of preventing future abuse when there is no immediate threat is self-defense.

While juries may have empathy with victims of abuse and a history of abuse may support a defendant’s belief that the abuser constituted an immediate threat, past abuse without the presence of an immediate threat of harm does not usually meet the legal definition of self-defense. In most cases, abuse victims must prove that they acted out of fear of immediate severe physical harm to successfully assert self-defense in a murder case.