May 31, 2016 Articles

Nonconfrontational Self-Defense and the Imminent Threat Requirement

What constitutes an imminent threat for self-defense purposes?

By Farrah Champagne

The right to kill another person in self-defense is based on the necessity of killing an aggressor to save oneself from imminent death or great bodily harm. State v. Gappins, 320 N.C. 64, 357 (1987). Self-preservation is an inherent right of law under such circumstances. State v. Holland, 193 N.C. 713, 718 (1927). The issue of self-defense is significantly practical as it concerns battered women, where wives defend killing their abusive husbands under nonconfrontational circumstances, such as while he is asleep, basing their reasoning on the fact that waiting until the danger was imminent would not prevent future attacks.

Normally, a victim of domestic violence is expected to contact authorities to assist in preventing abuse, but in some situations, the victim seeks help to no avail. Thus, many argue that the imminence requirement under the traditional law of self-defense should be relaxed and that the focus should be on whether force is needed to prevent future attacks. See State v. Norman, 378 S.E.2d 8, 19 (N.C. 1989). Others support the imminence requirement and oppose any further expansion of the requirement. Richard A. Rosen, “On Self-Defense, Imminence, and Women Who Kill Their Batterers,” 71 N.C. L. Rev. 371, 380 (1993).

I do not attempt to resolve every issue related to self-defense and the imminence requirement. I do, however, attempt to provide reasoning and a definitive answer regarding the legality of the killing of Mr. Norman in the case State v. Norman, 378 S.E.2d 8, 19 (N.C. 1989). The circumstances surrounding Norman’s demise bring sharply into focus domestic violence victims’ paradigm limits as a framework for the study of nonconfrontational self-defense and the imminent threat requirement.

Facts of the Case
In Norman, Judy Norman, the defendant, confessed to shooting her abusive husband, John Norman, three times in the head with a .25 caliber automatic pistol while he was sleeping. At trial, the defendant presented testimony that disclosed an extensive history of abuse at the hands of the decedent. According to the defendant’s testimony and the testimony of several witnesses, Mr. Norman was an abusive alcoholic who had begun to drink and abuse the defendant several years after they were married. They had five children, and when the defendant was pregnant with her youngest child, Mr. Norman kicked her down a flight of steps, which caused the defendant to go into labor prematurely the following day.

Up to the time of his death, Mr. Norman forced the defendant to work as a prostitute each day. If she did not bring home one hundred dollars per day, he would beat her unmercifully. He also called her names like “Dog” and “Whore.” Mr. Norman would beat the defendant with whatever he could get his hands on, including baseball bats, shoes, and bottles. He would even use the defendant’s body as an ashtray and extinguish cigarettes on her skin. Mr. Norman would often force the defendant to sleep on the concrete floor of their home, eat dog and cat food, and bark like a dog. He threatened to kill her on several occasions. He also threatened to cut her breast off and her heart out.

When asked if the defendant believed the threats, she said, “Yes. I believed him; he would, he would kill me if he got a chance. If he thought he wouldn’t a had to went to jail, he would a done it.” Id.

On the day of the shooting, Mr. Norman decided he would take a nap after beating the defendant for most of the day. When the defendant started to lie down with him, Mr. Norman said, “No bitch . . . Dogs don’t sleep on beds, they sleep on the floor.” The defendant left the home, went to her mother’s house, found a gun, took it back to her home, and shot Mr. Norman three times in the head, killing him. State v. Norman, 89 N.C. App. 384, 388 (N.C. Ct. App. 1988).

The defendant testified that she was too afraid to leave her husband or to press charges against him. She said she killed him because she was scared of him and knew

when he woke up, it was going to be the same thing, and I was scared when he took me to the truck stop that night it was going to be worse than he had ever been. I just couldn’t take it no more. There ain’t no way, even if it means going to prison. It’s better than living in that. That’s worse hell than anything.


Two expert witnesses in forensic psychology and psychiatry testified after examining the defendant. Based on their testimony, the defendant fit and exceeded “the profile, of an abused or battered spouse.” Dr. William Tyson stated that the defendant’s situation had become “torture, degradation and reduction to an animal level of existence, where all behavior was marked by survival.” Dr. Tyson also stated, “Mrs. Norman didn’t leave because she believed, fully believed that escape was totally impossible. . . . She fully believed that Norman was invulnerable to the law and to all social agencies that were available; that nobody could withstand his power. As a result, there was no such thing as escape.” He analogized the defendant’s situation to the Second World War and the Korean War. Id.

Dr. Robert Rollins conducted a psychiatric evaluation on the defendant and determined that she suffered from “abused spouse syndrome.” Dr. Rollins defined “abused spouse syndrome” as follows:

A situation where one spouse has achieved almost complete control and submission of the other by both psychological and physical domination. It’s, to start with, it’s usually seen in the females who do not have a strong sense of their own adequacy who do not have a lot of personal or occupational resources; its usually associated with physical abuse over a long period of time, and the particular characteristics that interest us are that the abused spouse comes to believe that the other person is in complete control; that they themselves are worthless and they cannot get away; that there’s no rescue from the other person.


Procedural History
The trial court convicted the defendant of voluntary manslaughter and she appealed. Based on the evidence presented that the defendant exhibited battered wife syndrome, the court of appeals decided that a jury could have found that the killing of her husband was justified as an act of perfect self-defense. The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded for a new trial, instructing the lower court to give the jury a perfect self-defense instruction. Id.

The court, in the new trial, decided that the defendant was not entitled to a jury instruction on either perfect or imperfect self-defense. The trial court reasoned that there was no need for the instructions unless there was evidence introduced that tended to show that “at the time of the killing the defendant reasonably believed herself to be confronted by circumstances which necessitated her killing her husband to save herself from imminent death or great bodily harm.” State v. Norman, 378 S.E.2d 8, 19 (N.C. 1989).

The jury found the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and the court stated that the law of self-defense “has required that a defendant claiming that a homicide was justified and, as a result, inherently lawful by reason of perfect self-defense must establish that she reasonably believed at the time of the killing she otherwise would have immediately suffered death or great bodily harm.” The imminence requirement, according to the court, ensures that deadly force will be used only as a last resort and for self-preservation. It also requires that the defendant reasonably believed that without deadly force, the act would have occurred and caused death or greatly bodily harm. State v. Watkins, 283 N.C. 504 (1973).

The court referred to Black’s Law Dictionary for the definition of imminence: “immediate danger, such as must be instantly met, such as cannot be guarded against by calling for the assistance of others or the protection of the law.” Imminence, Black’s Law Dictionary (5th ed. 1979)

The court concluded that the evidence did not show that the defendant reasonably believed that she was facing an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm. The court determined based on the evidence presented that her husband had been asleep for a period of time and was not posing a danger to the defendant during his nap or immediately prior to his nap. The court also cited other jurisdictions that are divided about similar facts. Compare, e.g., Commonwealth v. Grove, 526 A. 2d 369, appeal denied, 517 Pa. 630 (1987) (holding that a victim of domestic violence who killed her sleeping husband was not entitled to self-defense instruction because there was no immediate threat posed by the decedent), with State v. Gallegos, 104 N.M. 247, 719 P. 2d 1268 (1986) (concluding that an abused wife was entitled to a self-defense instruction where she shot and killed her husband who was lying on the bed awake).

After examining case law and law review articles, the court declined to expand the law of self-defense beyond immediacy and necessity. It concluded that the defendant’s conviction and six-year sentence were without error and reversed the decision of the court of appeals. State v. Norman, 378 S.E.2d 8, 19 (N.C. 1989).

Reactions to the Court’s Decision
Without exaggerating the significance of this single event, Mr. Norman’s death played an important role in the future of cases concerning domestic violence incidents. Today, the United States is characterized by the optimistic belief that the imminence requirement as it concerns self-defense is playing a role in safeguarding our society against unnecessary harm. Abusers are now relatively safe while they seemingly pose no threat, and the ruling in Norman was an important component of this safeguard. This is not to say, however, that the problem of the killing of abusers while they pose no threat is solved, because victims of domestic violence continue to fight back.

Although the facts of Norman’s killing suggest that the defendant violated the law, the death did not generate massive outrage among advocates for victims of domestic violence. In fact, the court’s decision to convict the defendant generated some outrage. Many were aware of the fact that Norman was a ruthless and abusive husband. There was no doubt that he was responsible for extremely violent episodes against his wife. He was a very dangerous man, and the defendant was justifiably in fear for her life. There seemed to be no escape. The defendant tried to get away on numerous occasions, and Mr. Norman would find her, bring her home, and beat her unmercifully. Having him arrested was an option fraught with peril, for upon his release, she would suffer the consequences of his rage.

Was Norman’s Killing Justified?
The killing of any person is of grave concern, and there are powerful arguments against the killing of Norman. My aim is not to mount a defense of the killing of Norman, nor is it to fully endorse the court’s decision along with its reasoning. Instead, I would like to consider the Norman case in isolation and identify justifiable features. The Norman case presents, in many ways, a good case that could be made for the killing of a domestic violence abuser when there is a lull in the abuse. A successful self-defense claim contains three elements: (1) a showing that the killing was of necessity or an imminent threat of death, (2) the proportionality of the force used by the defendant, and (3) a reasonable belief of danger or imminent threat. John W. Roberts, “Between the Heat of Passion and Cold Blood: Battered Woman’s Syndrome as an Excuse for Self-Defense in Non-Confrontational Homicides,” 27 Law & Psychol. Rev. 135, 136 (Spring 2003) (citing Joshua Dressler, Understanding Criminal Law 240).

There are at least two factors that seem to favor a justification for Norman’s killing. First, Norman was a dangerous individual who had the potential to cause more serious harm to his wife in the future. Even if we assume that Norman did not pose a threat to the life of his wife at the time he was killed, there were good reasons to believe shooting him was proportional to the violently abusive behavior he exhibited when he hit her with large objects, burned her, and shattered glass objects on her face. This reason alone may not be enough to justify the killing of Norman. Many people who are guilty of threatening the life of others and causing fear of death or serious bodily harm could continue to engage in similar conduct in the future. However, Norman was dangerous in a different kind of way than many domestic violence abusers. Norman subjected his wife to “the worst kind of torture and abuse, degradation that she had experienced over the years in a progressive way; that it would only get worse, and that death was inevitable.” He burned her, forced her to prostitute, hit her with bottles, kicked her in the face, threw hot coffee on her, crushed food in her face, and even broke glass against her face. State v. Norman, 324 N.C. 253, 269 (N.C. 1989).

The second factor justifying Norman’s killing was that Norman showed no signs of slowing down, so his wife had every reason to believe that his abusive behaviors would continue and that she would be the victim. His death put an end to the torture, abuse, and degradation. Coupled with the fact that it was evident that Norman was guilty of past serious offenses, the case in favor of stopping him by any means was strong.

These two considerations, however, are insufficient to justify the killing of an individual who is not posing an imminent threat. Despite Norman’s dangerous nature, there was no justification in killing him while he was asleep, even though there is no doubt that he was guilty of committing very serious offenses. These factors justify his trial and possible incarceration, but they do not justify his killing in a nonconfrontational manner if he could have been neutralized in some way before his killing. Norman was unable to defend himself while sleeping, which raises the moral issue that reviles the killing of the helpless, irrespective of whether they posed a future threat.

The considerations mentioned above that were in favor of his killing become indefensible while the suspect is asleep, even with the extraordinary circumstances that came into play in the Norman case.

Final Thoughts
As I stated previously, the aim of my analysis here was to take a definite stance on the legality of his killing. Accordingly, if the Norman case can provide a standard, it is this: the killing of a domestic violence abuser can be justified only with sufficient evidence that the threat of death or serious bodily injury is imminent. Furthermore, where there is opportunity to neutralize the threat, the use of deadly force should not be used unless a sentence was secured after the individual was afforded due process of law. See Joshua Dressler, “Battered Women and Sleeping Abusers: Some Reflections,” 3 Ohio St. J. Crim. Law 457, 461 (2006). The American justice system encourages due process through trial and the establishment of guilt by a judicial body. To some, however, Norman’s killing was morally acceptable because of the destructive nature of the abuse he inflicted on his wife. His death provided a sense of closure, justice, and prevention of future torture and abuse.

Accordingly, the facts of this case provide a meaningful explanation as to why an individual might defend a relaxed version of the imminence requirement as it concerns self-defense. The problem with the Norman case, however, was that Mr. Norman could have been tried in court for his criminal behaviors. Thus, although his killing may have brought feelings of closure and a sense that justice had been done as a response to the killing of a violently abusive husband, the killing of Norman while he was asleep is very hard to justify. Killing for retribution or prevention is not excusable in a case such as this; rather, Norman should have received due process, as the law requires, through a judicial hearing.

Keywords: criminal litigation, imminent threat, self-defense, domestic violence

Farrah Champagne is a coeditor in chief of the Criminal Litigation Committee newsletter and solo practitioner at Champagne Law in Baltimore, Maryland.

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