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Law School Case Brief

Brown v. United States - 256 U.S. 335, 41 S. Ct. 501 (1921)


Rationally the failure to retreat is a circumstance to be considered with all the others in order to determine whether a defendant went farther than he was justified in doing; not a categorical proof of guilt. If a man reasonably believes that he is in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant he may stand his ground and if he kills him he has not exceeded the bounds of lawful self-defense. Detached reflection cannot be demanded in such instances. Therefore in the Supreme Court of the United States it is not a condition of immunity that one in that situation should pause to consider whether a reasonable man might not think it possible to fly with safety or to disable his assailant rather than to kill him.


Defendant Brown was convicted of second degree murder in federal district court. He contended on appeal that the trial court gave erroneous jury instructions regarding his duty to retreat. The appellate court affirmed his conviction. Brown was granted a writ of certiorari.


Was Brown's conviction proper?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that because Brown and the victim had a long history of conflict and because there was evidence that the victim had initiated the fatal attack, the trial court erred by instructing the jury that Brown was required to attempt retreat before claiming self-defense. In reversing Brown's conviction, the Court held that the jury could have reasonably concluded that Brown feared for his life and that there was substantial evidence that the shooting was in self-defense. It was not necessary for Brown to engage in detached reflection before firing the fatal gunshot.

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