I came across this recent very brief, four paragraph, news story out of Illinois a few days ago of a defendant acquitted in a bench trial on several felony charges after he stabbed someone 10 times with a 2.5” knife during a road rage incident.

I noted that it conveniently provided a good basis for discussing several interesting legal points that often arise in cases of self-defense.

Bench Trial vs. Jury Trial: Which to Choose?

First, the choice for a bench trial: This is a trial without a jury, in which the trial judge plays the role of both judge and “finder of fact.”

The legal cliché is that if you’re guilty, you want a jury trial, in the hopes that your defense attorney can use theatrics to create a reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror. If you’re innocent, you want a bench trial in the expectation that the prosecution won’t be able to similarly emotionally influence a judge.

It is perhaps more true that if you’re a defendant in a case in which the evidence suggests both that you’re likely within the bounds of the law, but also creates some graphically unpleasant perceptions—in this case, the relatively high number of stab wounds, 10 in all, and the undoubtedly gruesome wounds they caused—it might be best to go with a bench trial in the expectation that the judge will rigorously apply the rule of law and not be improperly swayed by gruesome evidence.

So, for a defendant who has stabbed someone 10 times and is claiming self-defense, going with a bench trial is probably the smart move—assuming, of course, that the evidence is largely consistent with the technical requirements of self-defense.

Better When the Fight Comes to You

Second, in this instance, there was a road rage incident in which both men pulled over—but only the victim (meaning, of course, the aggressor who got stabbed by the defendant) got out of his car, and closed on the defendant, who remained in his vehicle.

If you’re planning to claim self-defense, it always looks better if the fight comes to you rather than you going to the fight. That’s what the defendant accomplished here by staying in his vehicle.

That said, there may well be tactical benefits to exiting the vehicle, and perhaps moving to the rear of the vehicle so as to place it between you and the advancing bad guy (in which case he’s still the one coming to the fight). Or not, depending on the specific facts of the case. That’s a judgment call only the defender can make in the moment, but hopefully they can make that decision in a way well-informed understanding the likely legal implications.

Better When the Other Guy is Drunk While You’re Sober

Third, it turned out the victim (the aggressor) was wildly drunk, with a blood alcohol level that was nearly twice the legal limit. In contrast there was no evidence that the defendant was intoxicated at all.

What if the defendant had been drunk as well? It’s true that you don’t lose any of your rights of self-defense merely because you’ve had a few drinks. That said, if you make bad decisions in self-defense because you’re drunk, that’s on you. And it’s not unreasonable for a jury to infer bad decisions from a state of intoxication—and I’m sure the prosecutor would have made that argument if he could have.

Instead, it was the defense lawyers who got to point out the BAC of the aggressor, and suggest the jury infer from bad decisions by the aggressor as a consequence of his intoxication.

Choice of Weapon Can Drive Perception of Self-Defense

Fourth, the relative modest length of the knife used by the defendant. Strictly speaking, if the conditions for deadly defensive force have been met it shouldn’t matter, legally speaking, how big the knife is.

Nevertheless, a jury is likely to have quite a different perception of a 2.5” knife on the one hand—“hey, I carry one of those myself, clipped in my pocket!”—and a 10” Rambo-style knife on the other hand. The latter is clearly more aggressive in appearance than the former.

It should also be noted that even a modestly-sized knife can be a devastating defensive weapon if properly used. In this particular case it does not appear that the defendant was properly trained in the effective use of a 2.5” knife, as indicated by the need for the repeated stabbing of the victim. And that’s unfortunate, but 10 stab wounds begin to look like an act of rage rather than self-defense.

A defender trained in Michael Janich’s “Martial Blade Concepts” school of defensive knife use would have likely been far more efficient in the use of that 2.5” knife, resulting in a quicker stop of the attack with the benefit of fewer injuries to the victim.

Well, that’s about all I can pull out of a four paragraph local news story! As usual, I trust you found it informative.

–Andrew

Attorney Andrew F. Branca
Law of Self Defense LLC
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[Featured Image: Lisle Police]