The Defense of Self-Defense in Massachusetts Criminal Law

July 19, 2011

If you have been charged with a crime of violence, such as assault and battery, in a Massachusetts court you may be entitled to raise the affirmative defense of self-defense to help win your case. In Massachusetts, a defendant is entitled to have a jury instructed on self-defense "if the evidence, viewed in its light most favorable to him is sufficient to raise the issue." Commonwealth v. Harrington, 379 Mass. 446 (1980).

If there is evidence of self-defense the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you did not act in self-defense. If the prosecutor has not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that you did not act in self-defense and that the force you used to defend yourself was not unreasonable and excessive, then the jury must find you not guilty of the crime charged. In other words, if the jury has a reasonable doubt whether or not you acted in self-defense and that the force you used was not unreasonable and excessive they must acquit you.

In order to determine the reasonableness of the force used by a defendant the jury can consider such matters as the size and strength of the alleged victim and the defendant, the type of weapons used, if any, by either party and whether or not there was a means of retreat or escape available to the defendant. Also, the jury can consider evidence of specific acts of violence or threats of violence perpetrated by the alleged victim if the defendant knew of any instances of violent acts or threats. Finally, the jury can consider evidence of the victim's reputation as a violent individual if the defendant knew of such a reputation. Commonwealth v. Pidge, 400 Mass. 350, 353 (1987); Commonwealth v. Fontes, 396 Mass. 733, 735 (1986); Commonwealth v. Edmonds, 365 Mass. 496, 501 (1974).

Where a defendant is facing more serious charges such as causing the death of another person, the jury can be additionally instructed to consider the issue of whether or not the defendant had reasonable grounds to believe that he or she was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury at the time deadly force was used. They can also consider what the defendant's state of mind may have been at that time such force was used.

The defense of self defense may also be raised where there is evidence in the case that the defendant used force in defense of another person. A defendant may use force against someone else in order to protect a third party where a reasonable person in the defendant's position believes that such force is required to protect the third party. Commonwealth v. Martin, 369 Mass. 640, 649, (1976).

If you have been charged with a crime of violence in any Boston court or any court in Massachusetts contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy. Attorney Murphy is a skilled and experienced Boston criminal defense lawyer who will speak with you personally right away to discuss the facts of your case, any issues of self-defense, and all of your legal rights and options.