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The Standard for Imperfect Self-Defense

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Dec 16, 2021

California Criminal Law:  Standard for Imperfect Self-Defense

The imperfect self-defense theory in criminal law can avoid a murder conviction, and a life sentence if accepted by the jury. Our law firm has handled homicide cases where the evidence of intent was mitigated either by heat of passion or imperfect self-defense. 

In many instances, our clients have been exonerated on murder charges due to aggressive work in court by our defense team.

Imperfect Self-Defense in California

The recent criminal appeals case of People v. Jason Carl Schuller clarified the standards for imperfect self-defense under California's criminal law.

The Third Appellate District upheld Schuller's conviction for the first-degree murder of his longtime friend, whom he shot in the head and then set on fire, as well as his sentence of 50 years to life. 

However, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred, albeit harmlessly, by failing to instruct the jury on the theory of imperfect self-defense.

At trial, witnesses testified that they heard gunshots from the victim's house shortly before the defendant was seen speeding off in his vehicle. 

Upon seeing smoke coming from the victim's residence, a neighbor entered and discovered the victim's body. He extinguished the fire. 

Law enforcement, initially alerted to a suspected drunk driver, followed the defendant in a high-speed chase for over an hour before finally arresting him. 

The murder weapon, a semi-automatic handgun, was in the car with Schuller.  In total, the victim had been shot nine times in the head before the body was set on fire.

Defense Argument at Trial

Schuller testified at trial. Through his testimony, as well as that of police officers and a family member of the defendant, the defense argued that Schuller had been suffering from delusions and hallucinations in the weeks leading up to the murder. 

Schuller recounted an extremely strange series of delusions that occurred in the victim's house leading up to the shooting.

In essence, Schuller believed that the victim was Lucifer, or otherwise possessed, and had tried to stab or shoot him. 

As relevant to the Court of Appeals' holding on imperfect self-defense, Schuller testified that he only shot the victim to protect himself from the danger he perceived of being imminently stabbed or shot.

Prosecution Rebuttal

Through recorded jail calls as well as the testimony of an expert forensic psychologist, the prosecution rebutted Schuller's insanity defense. 

They presented evidence that Schuller had initially appeared lucid and normal when arrested, but quickly shifted to using conspiratorial language involving angels and demons intervening in his daily life. 

The expert opined that Schuller was exaggerating or feigning psychiatric distress. 

Schuller's recorded jail calls likewise revealed no evidence that he had hallucinated before the shooting and contained no mention of demonic possession as he later claimed on the stand.

What is an Imperfect Self Defense?

During the guilt phase of the trial, the defense requested that the jury be instructed on imperfect self-defense.

It is described as an objectively unreasonable, but sincere belief that force is required to defend oneself from an imminent threat.

The defense is “imperfect” because it does not provide a total legal defense to the charge. 

However, if the jury believes that a first-degree murder defendant acted out of imperfect self-defense, it must convict him only of voluntary manslaughter, a significantly lesser charge. 

The trial judge denied the request for jury instruction on this theory.  The jury found that Schuller was legally sane at the time of the shooting and that he was guilty of first-degree murder.

Court of Appeals Explanation

As the Court of Appeals explained, where there is substantial evidence that a defendant was killed in imperfect self-defense, the trial court must instruct the jury on that theory.

Court of Appeals in California

Substantial evidence can exist even when the defense itself presents inconsistent theories, as was the case here: Schuller acted in self-defense, but unreasonably vs. Schuller acted out of an insane delusion. 

A pure insanity defense is inconsistent with imperfect self-defense because imperfect self-defense requires a mistake of fact. 

The defendant believes subjectively, but objectively unreasonably, that self-defense is required in the situation.

A delusional defendant, by contrast, is reacting to circumstances that are simply not present.  He is, by definition, not acting in response to the actual circumstances presented to him. 

To use an example offered by the Court of Appeals, an unreasonable defendant sees a stick on the ground and believes it is a snake whereas a delusional defendant sees a snake where no stick, or anything else snake-like, is on the ground at all.

Defendant's Testimony Demonstrated Delusions

Schuller's case provides an interesting example of a defendant whose testimony demonstrates delusions, but whose justification for killing is not entirely delusional. 

While aspects of the testimony were clearly delusional – the victim may have been Lucifer, angels and demons were involved, etc. – some aspects were not, including that the victim threatened Schuller with a knife and may have even attempted to stab him. 

Additionally, the Court of Appeals noted that there was objective corroboration for the non-delusional part of Schuller's testimony in that a large knife was found on the kitchen table near where the shooting occurred and that a gun case was also located nearby, corroborating Schuller's claim that the gun was close enough that he worried the victim would use it against him.

Trial Court Made Error by Not Giving Jury Self Defense Instruction

While the trial court erred in failing to give the self-defense instruction, that error was harmless in Schuller's case. 

The other evidence was overwhelming, including his changing story, his malingering as testified to by the psychologist, and his consciousness of guilt as evidenced by his attempt to burn the body and subsequent flight from the police. 

Nevertheless, Schuller's case provides clarification on the applicability of imperfect self-defense even in cases where the defense primarily argues that the defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity.

Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked criminal defense law firm based in Los Angeles County. You can reach us for an initial consultation by calling (310) 328-3776 or by filling out our contact form.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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