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Hurtado v. California

Related Cases

  • Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968).
  • Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975).
  • Ballew v. Georgia, 435 U.S. 223 (1978).
  • Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978).
Is There Such a Thing as Justifiable Homicide?

The idea of "justifiable homicide," in legal terms, is usually considered in terms of self-defense. English common law dictated that a person who killed in self-defense was liable for conviction, but usually he would be pardoned by the king.

There are instances where homicide is clearly justified in self-defense, but the legal system takes great care regarding three issues: was the determination on the part of the accused that killing was necessary to defend himself a "reasonable" decision? Was the attack "imminent," therefore justifying an act of self-defense? And did he use a level of force necessary in repelling the attacker, or was it excessive?

On some levels, it is easy, when confronted with the situation of a woman who kills her rapist or a man who shoots a home invader, to automatically agree with the self-defense plea. However, American justice attempts to take account of other contingencies. One of these is a concern regarding vigilantism: when Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies goes out and looks for muggers to rob him, so that he can shoot them, this may feel justified--but it is legally indefensible.


Kadish, Sanford H., ed. Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Hurtado v. California - Significance, The Right To Be Indicted, "ancient Established Law", "incapable Of Progress Or Improvement"