What is "imperfect" self-defense?

Imperfect self-defense may apply to some cases involving deadly force. But it isn't a complete defense.

In some states, someone who uses deadly force according to an honest—but unreasonable—belief in the need to defend oneself from imminent and serious harm may have a “partial” defense. In these states, this partial defense may also be available where:

  • some force—but not deadly force—was justified
  • the defendant unreasonably believed deadly force was justified, and
  • the defendant used deadly force.

This partial defense is called imperfect self-defense. In those states that recognize it, it applies only to murder and attempted-murder cases. The defense is “partial” because it doesn’t result in an acquittal. Instead, it results in a conviction for a lesser charge.

For a murder conviction, the defendant must have killed with “malice.” Where available, imperfect self-defense negates that “malice” element. The effect is to reduce  murder to manslaughter.

For much more on this doctrine, including additional circumstances where it sometimes applies, see  Imperfect Self-Defense.

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