Charged with murder or homicide in Chicago? This is a plain-English guide to using Illinois self-defense law to beat murder charges as well as some other types of homicide. The information comes from me, Chris Shepherd, a Chicago murder and homicide lawyer since 2005.
Note: if you are looking for a general overview of murder and homicide charges, including types, penalty, settlement options and other ways to beat these charges, read my guide on murder and homicide.
Self-Defense is a Powerful Way to Beat Murder and Homicide Charges
You are legally entitled to inflict great bodily harm on another person, even kill them, if you reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to yourself or another person, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. 720 ILCS 5/7-1. “Forcible felonies” include robbery, burglary, residential burglary, arson and some types of aggravated battery to name just a few examples.
Stated simply, proving that you killed the other person in self-defense is a complete bar to criminal liability and you will be found Not Guilty. This is the balance that we as a society have drawn between preserving life and honoring your right to protect yourself.
Technically, the government is supposed to disprove self-defense rather than you having to prove it. But jurors and prosecutors are either not going to understand or not care about this legal distinction. Therefore, the burden is on you the defendant to prove that you killed in order to defend yourself, defend another or prevent a forcible felony.
So how do you prove self-defense?
Early & Aggressive Investigation is Key to Successfully Using Self-Defense in Court
There are essentially two ways out-of-court action can help in-court.
First, there are the facts from the scene. The dynamics of the incident, the human drama that played out to cause the death has an underlying story; what is it?:
- Did an eyewitness see the deceased attack you or carry a weapon?
- Is there a video that recorded the incident?
- Were you outnumbered?
- Were you in your home?
- There are literally thousands of other ways to prove self-defense using the facts surrounding the incident. You may even consider testifying to what caused you to defend yourself. Although personally testifying can be risky, the benefits of testifying may outweigh the risks.
Research the Deceased's Background
But with such high stakes, it is important to not just stop at the surface. A disciplined Chicago murder lawyer should dig deeper to provide the judge or jury with facts that explain why the deceased, not you, is the aggressor.
One of the best ways to do this is to investigate the background of the deceased. The law in Illinois is that crimes of violence and drug addiction can be used to prove that the deceased was the true aggressor even if you did not know about these crimes at the time you defended yourself!
This means that if the person you are accused of killing has been been convicted of crimes of violence such as battery, aggravated battery or domestic battery, you can use that history of violence to help prove it was they who attacked you. The same reasoning applies to a history of addiction to drugs that affect the mind's perception and aggression centers; cocaine is a good example of such a narcotic. Clients are often surprised at the quality and quantity of criminal convictions in their accuser's background. Depending on the nature of the criminal history and the self-defense scenario, these can often be used to tip the balance in your favor.
Self-defense is a time honored right and a complete bar to criminal liability. But, with the stakes so high, using self-defense effectively in Chicago murder and homicide charges depends on digging deep, and discovering the facts needed to win, not sitting in the office focusing on legal theories.
To be sure, technical rules of self-defense and legal research play a crucial role in the high stakes area of murder and homicide. See Illinois v. Goods for an example of how one lawyer failed to properly argue self-defense damaging his client.
But, a confident knowledge of the rules and law must be built on the foundation of vigorous factual investigation. See my guide on using pretrial investigation to beat your case for more on this strategy.