Over 100 Years of Combined Experience in Criminal Law

Self Defense shooting case Justified but for how long?

Johnson Law Group recently had the honor to represent a good man, who is a law abiding citizen and pillar in his community, against first degree murder charges. Many news articles highlighted the facts of the case and covered the trial that lasted three days. In summary, last summer, our client heard a vehicle go off the road near his house on a very rural county road. Our client would leave his house to investigate, walking through his own field in order to help. Before he left, he grabbed a flashlight, his cell phone and a 9mm handgun. When he approached the crash site, he came upon two young men. When our client went to call the police, he was attacked by one of the young men. Our client fought for his life in a series of events that would change his life forever. He was presented with that choice none of us look forward to: choosing between being beaten, maybe killed, or defending himself. Our client defended himself, and was lucky to have survived an unprovoked brutal attack.

Our client was arrested the next morning. The State's Attorney sought to first charge him with Murder through a Grand Jury, but the grand jurors refused to indict on Murder. A motivated, young Assistant State's Attorney (or "ASA") had taken charge of the case, and would not honor the wishes of the Grand Jury. Instead, that ASA made a rare move, charging our client by Information, and proceed to a preliminary hearing, at which a judge would rule that probable cause only existed for the other charges that were levied, and, because of that, the judge had to find probable cause for the Murder as well. Our client would be charged with Murder in the first degree, alleging he intended to kill the young man, with Aggravated Battery, a Class X felony, and with Aggravated Discharge of a Firearm, a Class 1 felony.

It goes without saying that, based on the facts, our client was only defending himself. We have all seen or heard statements by others that seem to make self defense marginalized, as if it were some foreign concept that is unlikely to ever happen. This case demonstrates it can happen to anyone.

Self defense has been around as a defense available to people since the dawn of time. Even before our constitution was written, it was established law. It has only become even more so since then. Illinois has a law governing the justifiable use of force that has been around a long time. It details when a person can use force, including deadly force, in the face of possibly being attacked. Because of this statute, there are times when self defense is not available for certain crimes, and there are times when self defense can be defeated by the prosecution. This might catch many of us as remarkable, but it is the reality in Illinois.

The primary reason why self defense has been eroded is the belief that someone can "simply dial 911." We all know that is not always the truth. Our client's property, for example, sits near three county lines. Even when emergency services were called using a phone that had enhanced 911 for emergency purposes, the operator was confused about our client’s location. Even had the operator called services out right away, that doesn't mean that he wouldn't have been the victim of another battery — and that is the point of self defense: victimizing someone only when that person would make you the victim.

Yet the attitude that a person can just call the police still remains an argument for people seeking to judge others. The prosecutor in charge of our client’s case even maintained that there was no reason for him to bring a gun because of just that: he could have just called 911, and stayed in his house. Never mind the facts that our client went to the scene to help after a vehicle crash, and the gun was only grabbed because of the isolated area in which he lives. No, according to the prosecution, our client should have stayed in his house, and done nothing, waiting for police to respond.

The prosecutor even argued that our client did not need a gun. There are those who are both for and against guns and gun owners, but, in the end, the law allows us to carry them, to possess them, and, yes, to use them when appropriate. It's doubtful that the prosecutor had ever been to a farm, much less knew a farmer or of the issues with which farmers often have to deal. Fundamentally, no crime was committed in grabbing the gun or being armed, but that alone was enough for the prosecution.

We all have the right to defend ourselves. Period. There is no debating that. However, that right does not allow any of us to avoid being charged, or guarantee a not guilty verdict. Every trial lawyer will tell you there is no way to predict what verdict—guilty or not guilty—a jury will reach. Nothing stops a prosecutor, especially a prosecutor who is anti-gun, from prosecuting someone after that person defends himself or herself.

The erosion of self defense in Illinois can come easy, whether by the decisions made by prosecutors or those made by juries. The fact that the jury in our client’s case found him not guilty of all counts in barely over an hour was telling, as many juries will find someone guilty of, at least, some offense. We were able to prove that our client was defending himself. If this trial occurred ten years from now, then none of us can say whether or not self defense will still be available as a defense in cases like these. However sad that is, the reality is there.