Pointless Pontificating: Amateur Lawyers on Self-Defense

After every jury verdict in a self-defense case (and often even before), the amateur lawyers come out of the woodwork, claiming with absolute certainty their opinion that the defendant was or wasn’t ‘justified’ in doing whatever it was he or she did. What these people forget is something that my grandfather (a famous criminal court judge) frequently reminded us:  “There are only 12 opinions in a courtroom that count, and yours isn’t one of them.”

Time and again, on various forums where self-defense is discussed, I’ve noticed a tendency to quote some statute, or reference a particular appellate court decision, as if it “proves” their viewpoint on some currently newsworthy case. The George Zimmerman trial in the death of Trayvon Martin was a perfect example. The avalanche of opinions, both for and against, was dizzying, many of them almost laughable.

A more recent example occurred in the rather bizarre home-invasion case arising out of an incident in Little Falls, a small town in rural Minnesota, on Thanksgiving Day, in 2012. The actual details of the incident would take up far more space that we have available here. For those interested in learning more, a simple web search will bring up a myriad of articles on the case. But the case itself is not the focus of this commentary.

As a firearm trainer and carry permit instructor, I was immediately besieged with requests for my opinion as to whether or not the home-owner “would be convicted.” After years of observing such cases, I’ve learned that attempting to predict what any jury is going to do is not only impossible, but pointless. However, given the facts of the case, I was not surprised when the jury took only 3 hours to convict him.

Naturally, more than a few self-appointed pundits fervently expressed the dangerously naïve opinion that “if a guy’s in my house, I can shoot him, no questions asked.” Sorry, folks, but there are no absolutes in law, and whether or not you had a “right” to shoot will be determined by your jury, not by you (or some blogger).

When asked by someone “what does the law say…” about any particular issue, my grandfather would respond, “What does the law say? Simple, it depends on who’s reading it that day.” He was right. What “the law” says is not what you or I, or even some lawyer, believe it to say. Those are just opinions as to what it says, and your case will be decided by human beings who may have very different opinions of what “the law” says.

Note that top-notch criminal defense attorneys who specialize in armed self-defense almost never make the kind of categorical statements seen on most Internet websites. When a client asks their attorney what their chances are, the most common response is usually something like, “Well, I’m pretty good at my job, and I’ll do the best that I can.” They know better than most that there are no guarantees in a courtroom.

So, investigate all the self-defense cases you care to. Just make sure that your goal is to avoid the kinds of mistakes that others make, not merely attempting to convince yourself that you know, with absolute certainty, what “the law” says, and thus won’t suffer the same fate as that guy who just got convicted.

And be very skeptical of those who make categorical pronouncements about what is or isn’t “legal” when it comes to self-defense. Remember that their opinions, even yours and mine, are just that – opinions.

[John Caile is a writer for “Concealed Carry Report”]