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Defending the Self-Defense Case
By Lisa J. Steele
A self-defense case is fundamentally different from most other criminal
prosecutions. The essence of the defense is that the defendant is the
victim of an attempted or completed violent felony such as assault,
rape, or homicide which, but for the defendant’s lawful actions, would
have resulted in the defendant’s death or in serious bodily harm. The
complainant is, in fact, a violent aggressor who, but for the
defendant’s lawful actions, would be the one standing trial. The
defendant is the “good guy” and the victim is the “bad guy,” despite the
prosecution’s efforts to portray the converse.
Many assumptions about trial tactics are inverted in a self-defense
case. If the defendant presents some evidence on each of the elements of
self-defense, then he or she is entitled to a jury instruction on the
issue, which places the burden of proof squarely on the prosecutor to
disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution
fails to disprove self-d
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