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Written by Attorney Seth Morris


In California, when someone is charged with murder, they might use the imperfect self-defense strategy to obtain an acquittal or not guilty verdict. If successful, this defense could knock a murder charge down to a lower-level offense, helping defendants avoid harsh penalties. However, certain elements must be fulfilled to obtain a favorable outcome.

How California Law Defines Imperfect Self-Defense

The imperfect self-defense strategy is available to individuals who have killed another person due to an honest but unreasonable belief that they needed to use deadly force to defend themselves or others.

Here, any other reasonable person would not have made the same decision as the defendant.

If your criminal defense lawyer can prove that another reasonable person would have made the same decision you did, your defense would be considered perfect and warrants an acquittal.

However, if your defense is incomplete, you could be guilty of a violent crime.

What Is an Unreasonable Belief?

The state’s prosecuting attorney and your criminal defense lawyer will analyze the details of your case to determine whether your belief that you needed to use deadly force was reasonable.

It is essential to consider whether another reasonable person would have acted in the same way you did. Would that person have made the same decision to use deadly force? If they would not, your belief is considered unreasonable, no matter how honest.

What Is People v. Flannel?

In the case of People v. Flannel (1979), the defendant, Flannel, was arrested for murder after having fired a shot at the victim, known as Daniels. Flannel and Daniels knew each other but did not get along. Daniels was known for carrying a knife in his pocket.

During a drunken argument, Flannel pulled out his gun and attempted to provoke Daniels into pulling out his knife.

When Daniels reached toward his pocket to seemingly pull his knife out, Flannel shot him in the head. When Daniels fell, the blade was seen flying through the air and landed on the ground where it opened.

No one reported seeing Daniels with the knife in his hand. Flannel then attempted to use the imperfect self-defense doctrine to clear his name. He was unsuccessful, and a jury of his peers found him guilty of murder.

What Are the Elements Needed to Establish Imperfect Self-Defense?

If you hope to establish imperfect self-defense, specific elements must be met. These include:

  • Believing that you or someone else is at immediate risk of being seriously injured or killed
  • Believing that only the use of deadly force at that moment is necessary to protect yourself or others from being injured or killed
  • One of the two beliefs must be unreasonable

If you meet the elements of the imperfect self-defense doctrine, you may be able to avoid being charged with murder. However, you could still be charged with other related offenses and prosecuted for those crimes.

How Your Lawyer Will Prove Imperfect Self-Defense

Imperfect self-defense is not typically the defendant’s first choice when examining defensive options. Your attorney will scrutinize the circumstances of your case before arguing that the imperfect self-defense doctrine applies.

Your attorney will be prepared to present your story in a way that helps the jury understand why you made the decision you did. Common strategies that could be used to prove imperfect self-defense include:

  • Showing that your beliefs justify the decision you made
  • Showing that you did not create the hostile or violent environment
  • Showing the jury why you came to the decision you did based on your life experience
  • The victim escalated violence without just cause

What Are the Penalties of Imperfect Self-Defense?

If the jury finds you acted in imperfect self-defense, the charges against you could be reduced or dismissed entirely.

Criminal Penalties

In many cases, a murder charge can be reduced to voluntary manslaughter. If convicted, you could spend up to 11 years in a California state prison, pay considerable fines, and be ordered to complete various rehabilitation programs.

Civil Penalties

However, you are also at risk of having a civil claim run against you. The decedent’s surviving family may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit against you, seeking monetary damages for your liability.

Damages in a Civil Case

You could be ordered to compensate the surviving family members through the decedent’s funeral and burial expenses, medical bills, non-economic damages, and more. Furthermore, you are also at risk of being punished by the civil court system.

The courts have the authority to impose punitive damages, which they may find necessary in cases of gross negligence or reprehensible conduct.

If you can show that the imperfect self-defense doctrine applies to your case, you may be able to avoid these penalties and start to rebuild your life after everything you have been through.

Contact a California Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Clearing your name through the imperfect self-defense strategy is not always advised. Your attorney will give you a better idea of how to approach the murder charges against you after examining the evidence and details of your case.

Contact a dedicated California criminal defense lawyer at Morris Law to start working on your defense strategy as soon as today. Fill out our secure contact form or call our office to schedule your confidential case evaluation.