Self-defense law gets even muddier when it comes to defending third parties. There are lots of reasons to think twice before rushing to the aid of another person who isn’t your responsibility. Not only does the law get tricky when trying to justify your actions, but what if in the course of your intended third-party rescue the fight ends up directed at you personally? Just how harmoniously would the “defense of others” claim co-exist with the “self-defense” claim?
That’s exactly what happened in a 2013 case decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court. I quoted the law of this case in another post, but the excerpt below gives you a better idea of the facts. It appears Mr. Hawkins first intended to save his friend and ended up genuinely needing to save himself (before he even reached his friend). We don’t have video of his testimony, but the transcript itself is sweating bullets. Would you want to be in this guy’s shoes?
At trial, Mr. Hawkins consistently described his mental state — at the moment of pulling the trigger — as one of self-defense. Mr. Hawkins testified he originally retrieved the gun from the truck after the fight broke out because he was concerned for the safety of his best friend, who was involved in the fight. Mr. Hawkins said he saw someone who resembled Mr. Ellington take something out of a car, and he feared it was a weapon. He said he planned to fire the gun into the air to scatter the crowd. However, as Mr. Hawkins approached the melée, his attention shifted: “A big guy that was wearing black approached me. I didn’t even see him coming. He just popped right in front of me…. He was reaching like in his waist … like he was trying to get something.” Mr. Hawkins testified that he felt threatened and afraid. He feared that Mr. Ellington was reaching for a gun, and that he was about to become “a victim of a crime.” In response to his lawyer’s question, “Did you intend to kill him,” Mr. Hawkins replied, “No, sir, just to protect myself.”
On cross examination, Mr. Hawkins again testified that his intention in getting the gun was to help his best friend. But he then testified that pulling the trigger
was just an honest mistake that was based on protecting myself…. [P]rotection is self-defense. Protecting myself is … self-defense…. And if you saying me protecting myself by pulling this trigger is self-defense, yes, sir, I say I’m going for self-defense…. Like I said, I was scared. I felt threatened, and he was approaching me, and I have a gun in my hand, so my first thought is—I mean, I’m protecting myself, protecting myself…. All I thought was to protect myself. By the gun being in my hand, the trigger was pulled…. I was scared.
Mr. Hawkins was the sole witness for the defense. After the defense rested, the trial court held a colloquy concerning potential jury instructions and denied Mr. Hawkins’s motion for an instruction on defense of a third person. In doing so, the court made a distinction between the moment Mr. Hawkins retrieved the gun initially and the moment he actually used the weapon. Concerning Mr. Hawkins’s motivations when he fired the gun, the court noted:
[T]he defendant clearly testified that he was defending himself. It was just to protect himself…. He used the words “concerned about my friends” when he got out of the car, but that testimony alone, being concerned about his friends, would not justify a third-party defense claim…. There’s no ambiguity from his own testimony or I would [rule] otherwise.
Having read the trial transcript, we agree with the trial court. The alpha and omega of Mr. Hawkins’s defense was his own testimony that he shot Mr. Ellington in a moment of fear to protect himself. The State presented evidence that Mr. Hawkins killed for more vindictive reasons. No evidence presented at trial “fairly raised” the possibility that Mr. Hawkins shot Mr. Ellington because he believed doing so was “immediately necessary” to protect a third person. Mr. Hawkins was not entitled to a jury instruction on defense of another.
That’s from State v. Hawkins 406 S.W.3d 121, 129-30 (Tenn. 2013). Lots of lessons here. Lesson #1: Don’t be so focused on the melée in front of you that you completely miss the giant menacing dude coming from somewhere else. One of my trainers (and friends), Craig Harper, talks a lot about task-fixation. Big no-no. Lesson #2: If you’re in a car, and trouble brews over yonder, don’t abandon the escape vehicle and opt instead to haul yourself headlong into the melée (particularly if you’re not going to heed Lesson #1). Lesson #3: Warning shots, or crowd-scatter shots, or any other errant launching of unsupervised death rays is patently goofy (to steal a phrase from Tom Givens). Not only do you endanger uninvolved, unsuspecting people as much as a mile away, but you also waste valuable ammunition. And as Mr. Hawkins seemed to realize (hence his fear of retaliation), warning shots also effectively tell your opponents that you’re not willing to defend yourself. You’re just desperately hoping they all run away. Bad tactical position to be in. And that’s just the tactical stuff.
On the legal side, there are even more troubled waters. First, the insinuation that the shot was “an honest mistake” could have cost Mr. Hawkins his self-defense claim. You cannot defend yourself by accident. Luckily for Hawkins, the court did at least let the jury consider his claim of self-defense. But as the excerpt shows, he wasn’t able to argue both self-defense and defense of his friend. And I think the failed attempt to sneak in the third-party-defense claim probably weakened his self-defense claim, which the jury ended up rejecting. Hawkins is now doing time for murder. This must have been a really good buddy that he was trying to rescue. I wonder if that guy comes to visit him in prison.