The concept of justifiable homicide in criminal law is a defense to culpable homicide (criminal or negligent homicide). Generally, there is a burden to produce exculpatory evidence in the legal defense of justification.

In most countries, a homicide is justified when there is sufficient evidence to disprove the alleged criminal act or wrongdoing (under the beyond a reasonable doubt standard for criminal charges, and preponderance of evidence standard for claims of wrongdoing, i.e. civil liability).[citation needed] The key to this legal defense is that it was reasonable for the subject to believe that there was an imminent and otherwise unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm to the innocent by the deceased, when they committed the homicide.[citation needed]


According to Black's Law Dictionary justifiable homicide applies to the blameless killing of a person, such as in self-defense.[1]

The term "legal intervention" is a classification incorporated into the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision, and does not denote the lawfulness or legality of the circumstances surrounding a death caused by law enforcement.[2] For example, in 2020, legal intervention deaths i.e., deaths caused by law enforcement and other persons with legal authority to use deadly force acting in the line of duty, excluding legal executions, amounted to 1.3% of all 71,000 violence-related deaths in the United States.[2][when?]

Common excusing conditions

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Potentially excusing conditions common to multiple jurisdictions include the following.

  1. Capital punishment in places that it is legal.
  2. Where a state is engaged in a war with a legitimate casus belli, a combatant may lawfully kill an enemy combatant so long as that combatant is not hors de combat. This principle is embedded in public international law and has been respected by most states around the world.
  3. In most countries, it is lawful for a citizen to repel violence with violence to protect someone's life or destruction of property.[3]
    • The scope of self-defense varies; some jurisdictions have a duty to retreat rule that disallows this defense if it was safe to flee from potential violence. In some jurisdictions, the castle doctrine allows the use of deadly force in self-defense against an intruder in one's home. Other jurisdictions have stand-your-ground laws that allow use of deadly force in self-defense in a vehicle or in public, without a duty to retreat.
  4. Where the person's death as inflicted by the effecting of lawful arrest or prevention of lawfully detained person's escape, quelling riot or insurrection when the use of force is "no more than absolutely necessary".[3]
  5. The doctrine of necessity allows, for example, a surgeon to separate conjoined twins, killing the weaker twin to allow the stronger twin to survive. This is not recognized, for example, in England and Wales.
  6. Several countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington allow both active and passive euthanasia by law, if justified.
  7. The "heat of the moment" defense for crimes of passion: death results from a situation where the defendant is deemed to have lost control. This may be considered a part of the defense of provocation against charges of murder. Based on the idea that all individuals may suddenly and unexpectedly lose control when words are spoken or events occur, jurisdictions differ on whether this should be allowed to excuse liability or merely mitigate to a lesser offense such as manslaughter, and under which circumstances this defense can be used. In many common law jurisdictions, provocation is a partial defense that converts what would have been murder into manslaughter.
  8. A few jurisdictions do not prosecute (Iran, Iraq) or have a lesser penalty (Kuwait, Egypt) for honor killings.[4]

European Convention on Human Rights

See also: European Convention on Human Rights § Article 2 – life

Article 2 Paragraph 2 of the European Convention On Human Rights provides that death resulted from defending oneself or others, arresting a suspect or fugitive, or suppressing riots or insurrections, will not contravene the Article when the use of force involved is "no more than absolutely necessary":

2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this Article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:
(a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence;
(b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;
(c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.

Criminal Procedure Act in South Africa

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In South Africa, §49 Criminal Procedure Act of 1977[5] provided the following before its amendment in 1998:

(2) Where the person concerned is to be arrested for an offense referred to in Schedule 1 or is to be arrested on the ground of having committed such an offense, and the person authorized under this Act to arrest or to assist in arresting him cannot arrest him or prevent him from fleeing by other means than killing him, the killing shall be deemed to be justifiable homicide.
This has now been amended by §7 Judicial Matters Second Amendment Act 122 of 1998:
(2) If any arrestor attempts to arrest a suspect and the suspect resists the attempt, or flees, or resists the attempt and flees, when it is clear that an attempt to arrest him or her is being made, and the suspect cannot be arrested without the use of force, the arrestor may, in order to effect the arrest, use such force as may be reasonably necessary and proportional in the circumstances to overcome resistance or to prevent the suspect from fleeing: Provided that the arrester is justified in terms of this section in using deadly force that is intended or is likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm to a suspect, only if he believes on reasonable grounds-
(a) that the force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting the arrestor, any person lawfully assisting the arrestor or any other person from imminent or future death or grievous bodily harm;
(b) that there is a substantial risk that the suspect will cause imminent or future death or grievous bodily harm if the arrest is delayed; or
(c) that the offence for which the arrest is sought is in progress and is of a forcible and serious nature and involves the use of life threatening violence or a strong likelihood that it will cause grievous bodily harm.

In the United States

A non-criminal homicide ruling, usually committed in self-defense or in defense of another, exists under United States law. A homicide may be considered justified if it is done to prevent a very serious crime, such as rape, armed robbery, manslaughter or murder. The victim must reasonably believe, under the totality of the circumstances, that the assailant intended to commit a criminal act that would likely result in the death or life-threatening injury of an innocent person. A homicide performed out of vengeance, or retribution for action in the past, or in pursuit of a "fleeing felon" (except under specific circumstances) would not be considered justifiable.[citation needed]

In many states, given a case of self-defense, the defendant is expected to obey a duty to retreat if it is possible to do so. In the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana,[6] New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Washington, Wyoming and other Castle Doctrine states, there is no duty to retreat in certain situations (depending on the state, this may apply to one's home, business, or vehicle, or to any public place where a person is lawfully present).[citation needed] Preemptive self-defense, in which one kills another on suspicion that the victim might eventually become dangerous, is not justifiable.[citation needed]

In the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of District of Columbia v. Heller, the majority held that the Constitution protected the right to the possession of firearms for the purpose of self-defense "and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home".[7]

Two other forms of justifiable homicide are unique to the prison system: the death penalty and preventing prisoners from escaping. To quote the California Penal Code (state law) that covers justifiable homicide:[citation needed]

196. Homicide is justifiable when committed by public officers and those acting by their command in their aid and assistance, either--
1. In obedience to any judgment of a competent Court; or,
2. When necessarily committed in overcoming actual resistance to the execution of some legal process, or in the discharge of any other legal duty; or
3. When necessarily committed in retaking felons who have been rescued or have escaped, or when necessarily committed in arresting persons charged with felony, and who are fleeing from justice or resisting such arrest.

Although the above text is from California law, many other jurisdictions, like Florida, have similar laws to prevent escapes from custody. Examples include self defense, prevention of criminal act, trespassers, and defense of another person.

Notable cases


  1. ^ Black's Law Dictionary Archived 2013-09-21 at the Wayback Machine: justifiable homicide is the blameless killing of a person, such as in self-defense.
  2. ^ a b Liu, Grace S. (2023). "Surveillance for Violent Deaths — National Violent Death Reporting System, 48 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, 2020". MMWR. Surveillance Summaries. 72 (5): 1–38. doi:10.15585/mmwr.ss7205a1. ISSN 1546-0738. PMC 10208308. PMID 37220104. S2CID 258865008.
  3. ^ a b "European Convention on Human Rights" (PDF). ECHR. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2018-03-17. Article 2 Right to Life
  4. ^ Preliminary Examination of so-called "Honour Killings" in Canada
  5. ^ "Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977" (PDF). 1977. Retrieved September 18, 2023.
  6. ^ Montana Code Annotated 45-3-103 Retrieved 12-Mar-2009 Archived April 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2013-03-02. Retrieved 2013-02-25.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) U.S. Supreme Court ruling of District of Columbia v. Heller
  8. ^ "Columbus police officer who shot Ma'Khia Bryant cleared of criminal wrongdoing". The Guardian. Associated Press. March 12, 2022. Retrieved April 10, 2022.
  9. ^ Bronson, Fred (2003). The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits: The Inside Story Behind Every Number One Single on Billboard's Hot 100 from 1955 to the Present. Billboard Books. p. 30. ISBN 0-8230-7677-6.
  10. ^ J. J. Kearns's autopsy report
  11. ^ "Kill Dillinger here". Chicago Daily Tribune. July 23, 1934. p. 1.
  12. ^ Haas, Jeffrey (2009). The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. Chicago Review Press. p. 111. ISBN 9781569763650.
  13. ^ Dolan, Thomas J. (January 22, 1970). "Panther Inquest Backs Police" (PDF). Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago. p. 3. Archived from the original on May 14, 2016. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  14. ^ Rutberg, Susan (December 6, 2017). "Nothing but a Northern Lynching: The Death of Fred Hampton Revisited". Huffpost. Archived from the original on April 3, 2019. Retrieved October 19, 2019.
  15. ^ Thamm, Natalie (April 7, 2019). "Murder or 'Justifiable Homicide'?: The Death of the Revolutionary Fred Hampton". STMU History Media. Archived from the original on October 20, 2019. Retrieved October 19, 2019.
  16. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Day of the Gun: George Jackson". YouTube.
  17. ^ Norris, Luke (2020-12-31). "Never Forget Don King Killed 2 People (and Spent Less Than 4 Years in Prison) Before Becoming the Biggest Boxing Promoter in the World". Sportscasting | Pure Sports. Retrieved 2023-11-09.
  18. ^ "ESPN Classic - Only in America". Retrieved 2023-11-09.
  19. ^ Fink, Jenni (March 8, 2022). "No Charges for Biker Who Fatally Shot Woman After She Hit Him With Car". Newsweek. Retrieved November 11, 2022.
  20. ^ Riesz, Megan (9 April 2012). "Did Eadweard J. Muybridge get away with murder?". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  21. ^ Crane, Cheryl (August 8, 2001). "Lana Turner's Daughter Tells Her Story". CNN (Interview). Interviewed by Larry King. Archived from the original on July 16, 2012. Retrieved January 20, 2019.

Further reading