United States v. Peterson – Self Defense
- Charles Keitt was in a alley behind Bennie Peterson’s House.
- Bennie Peterson’s car was parked in the alley.
- Keitt was removing the windshield wipers from the car.
- Peterson came out into the alley and told Keitt to stop.
- The two got into a heated argument.
- Neither party made any threats.
- Peterson went inside his house.
- Peterson came back outside with a pistol.
- Peterson pointed the pistol at Keitt who was in his own car at that point and told him not to move.
- Keitt got out of his car with a lug wrench and walked towards Peterson.
- Peterson told Keitt to stop, but Keitt kept advancing towards him with the lug wrench.
- Peterson shot and killed Keitt.
- Both were still in the alley.
- Peterson was charged with Second Degree Murder in Federal District Court (D.C. at that time had no separate Judicial System).
- At trial the Court instructed the Jury with respect to Second Degree Murder and the lesser included offense of Manslaughter.
- The Court also instructed the Jury with respect to the Law of Self Defense.
- The Court instructed that if Peterson was the initial aggressor that he did not have the argument of self defense unless he: attempted to withdraw from the altercation and communicated this intention to Keitt.
- The Court instructed that if Peterson failed to take an opportunity to safely retreat that the Jury could use the failure in determining whether he acted in self-defense or not.
- The Trial Court Jury did not accept Peterson’s self-defense claim.
- Peterson was Convicted of Manslaughter by the Trial Court Jury.
- Peterson appealed to the D.C. Circuit.
Issue 1: Can an initial aggressor in a fatal conflict invoke the doctrine of self-defense to justify killing his adversary?
Issue 2: Is the initial aggressor in a fatal conflict under a duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense?
Conclusion: Judge Robinson Opined for the Court.
(1) No. Deadly force is allowable only if there is no other option. There is a necessity for a person to have an honest and reasonable belief that there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury. That having been said, a person who provokes a fatal conflict does not have a right to kill in self-defense. The right can only be restored by (1) making a good-faith effort to withdraw from the conflict and (2) communicating that intent to the other party.
(2) Yes. It is not logically necessary to kill in self-defense if it is possible to retreat. This has to do with the basic definition of necessity historically. The District of Columbia still follows this rule, though it is now in the minority. There is no duty to retreat if it would be dangerous to do so.
Rule: An initial aggressor in a fatal conflict does not have the argument of self-defense unless they make a good faith effort to withdraw from the conflict and also communicate that intent to the other party. The initial aggressor also has a duty to retreat if possible unless it is too dangerous if they are to make the argument of self-defense.
Rule Proof and Application to these Facts:
The jury instructions fit with the above principles. Peterson was the aggressor of the second event by coming outside with a pistol even though Keitt was the aggressor of the initial event. It was correct to deny Peterson’s motion for acquittal.
The castle doctrine is inapplicable because Peterson became the initial aggressor by coming out of his house and therefore he was not innocent. The trial judge was correct in his instruction to the jury that it could onsider whether Peterson had the ability to safely retreat.