Self-Defense Law; A “Beast of Burden”

Brandon WaltripCriminal Defense

The Rolling Stones song “Beast of Burden” has nothing at all to do with the self-defense law. But, when I hear about a self-defense case, such as the recent Trayvon Martin incident in Florida, I can’t help but think of the song. “You can put me out, on the street!” rings in my head.
“Beast of Burden” is a song about love, not law, however, the law on self-defense actually requires an accused defendant, and his or her attorney, to be in effect a “Beast of Burden.”  This is because an accused defendant bears the burden of proving they acted in self defense.
Based on long-standing common law self-defense is an affirmative defense. The defendant, in effect, admits to doing the acts charged, but offers other evidence of justification or excuse. To succeed the defendant’s evidence must be enough to raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of the triers of fact; i.e., the judge or jury. This seems contradictory as in nearly every other criminal prosecution the only burden is on the prosecutor to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an accused has committed a crime.
Also important to the case is to understand that the defendant’s presentation of evidence of self-defense does not negate any element of a crime. This means in a case where a defendant has been charged with murder the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving the killing of a human being with malice aforethought. When each of these elements are proven, a defendant can be found NOT GUILTY of the crime where the trier of fact finds sufficient evidence for self-defense, but each element of the crime still stands as proven.
The case law in regards to showing self-defense is fact specific. Where there is an assault with a knife, as opposed to a pistol, the necessity of self-defense changes drastically. The two important things to remember in any self-defense case is this:

  1. The Commonwealth must prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt; and
  2. The Defendant bears the burden of showing self-defense.

A good discussion of self-defense law in Virginia can be found in McGhee v. Commonwealth; 219 Va. 560 (1978), Wynn v. Commonwealth; 5 Va. App. 283 (1987); and Commonwealth v. Cary; 271 Va. 87 (2006).
So, that all being said, when I hear of an incident of accused murder and a possible self-defense case this is why I think of the Rolling Stones. … “Am I hard enough, Am I tough enough, Am I rich enough, I’m not too blind to see …”