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Philosophy 22B

Justifiable Homicide or Murder without Justification or Excuse? - A Battered Woman's Defense

Janice Subin was charged with murder for the stabbing death of her husband Chester Subin in the early morning hours of February 13, 1995. She was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment in the Idaho State Penitentiary. She has appealed her judgment for conviction and it is now before the Idaho Supreme Court.

According to testimony at the original trial, the Subin marriage near its end was "an unhappy one, filled with a mixture of alcohol abuse, moments of kindness towards one another, and moments of violence."

Early in the evening of February 12, Chester and Janice attended a gun club party in the city of [Boise] where they both consumed a large amount of alcohol. On the return trip to the farm, an argument developed between Janice and Chester which continued after their arrival home just after midnight. Once inside, the arguing did not stop; Chester was shouting, and Janice was crying.

"At one point in the fighting, Janice tried to telephone the deputy sheriff of [the local] County, but Chester prevented her from using the telephone by shoving her away and pushing her down. At another point, the argument moved outside the house, and Chester once again was pushing Janice to the ground.

"Each time Janice attempted to get up, Chester would push her to the ground again. A short time later, Janice and Chester re-entered their home and went to bed. When Chester fell asleep, Janice got out of bed, went to the kitchen, and got a butcher knife. She then went back into the bedroom and stabbed Chester.

"In a matter of minutes Chester died from shock and loss of blood."

At her trial Janice pleaded self-defense?

What do you think? Is she guilty or innocent of murdering her husband?

Would you prosecute or defend Janice Subin?

Say there is a history of repeated abuse in Janice's and Chester's marital relationship. As a result, Janice's fear of Chester is influenced by her knowledge of his character and repeated willingness to resort to violence. Whether you believe that Janice's stabbing of Chester was justified by a principle of self-defense may depend on what you believe she honestly and reasonably believed at the time.

As one opinion has held "courts have traditionally distinguished between standards of reasonableness by characterizing them as either objective or subjective. An objective standard of reasonableness requires the factfinder to view the circumstances surrounding the accused at the time he used force from the standpoint of a hypothetical reasonable and prudent person. . . . This is not the case, however, where a subjective standard of reasonableness is employed. Under the subjective standard the issue is not whether the circumstances attending the accuseds use of force would be sufficient to create in the mind of a reasonable and prudent person the belief that the use of force is necessary to protect himself against immediate unlawful harm, but rather whether the circumstances are sufficient to induce in the accused an honest and reasonable belief that he must use force to defend himself against imminent harm."

What do you think? Should an objective or subjective standard of reasonableness be employed in Janices case? Which would you use? For instance, how should the trial court have instructed the jury in Janices case? Should the trial court judge have told the jury:

(A) "The circumstances under which she acted must have been such as to produce in the mind of reasonably prudent persons, regardless of their sex, similarly situated, the reasonable belief that the other person was then about to kill her or do seriously bodily harm to her."

or (B) "A defendants conduct is not to be judged by what a reasonably cautious person might or might not do or consider necessary to do under the circumstances, but what she herself in good faith honestly believed and had reasonable ground to believe was necessary for her to do to protect herself from apprehended death or great bodily injury."

What consequences, if any, might instruction (A) or (B) have for the future and general applicability of a plea of self-defense? Indeed, which instruction (A) or (B) should be the correct statement of the law of self-defense?

Should juries be directed in cases of self-defense to assume the physical and psychological characteristics of the accused, to put themselves, as it were, in the shoes of the accused, and then decide whether or not the particular circumstances surrounding the accused at the time the accused used force were sufficient to create in the accused's mind an honest and reasonable belief that the use of force was necessary to protect the accused from imminent and unlawful harm, or should juries be directed to assume the impressions that a hypothetical reasonably prudent person would have under similar circumstances?

If you think Janice's action is defensible, was it justified or merely excusable?

And how does your decision in Janice's case affect your decisions in Elway's (People v. Young) and Laurie Sullivan's (case?

Would you adopt a subjective standard of reasonableness in all three cases or an objective standard?

Click HERE to read the decision in THE ACTUAL CASE.

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Page last edited: February 1, 2000