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The principles governing a plea of self-defense are well-established. Self-defense is an affirmative defense to a charge of murder, and in making such a plea, a defendant implicitly admits the killing was intentional and assumes the burden of introducing evidence of justification or excuse that raises a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. The "bare fear" of serious bodily injury, or even death, however well- grounded, will not justify the taking of human life. There must also be some overt act indicative of imminent danger at the time. In other words, a defendant must wait till some overt act is done, till the danger becomes imminent. In the context of a self-defense plea, imminent danger is defined as an immediate, real threat to one's safety. There must be some act menacing present peril and the act must be of such a character as to afford a reasonable ground for believing there is a design to do some serious bodily harm, and imminent danger of carrying such design into immediate execution.
Defendant Victoria Shelton Sands was repeatedly abused and beaten by her husband, Thomas Lee Sands. During the day of the incident, the husband had beaten defendant again, using his fists and the butt of a gun to attack defendant. The husband also pushed the barrel of the gun up into the wife’s nose. Believing that her husband was going to kill her, defendant shot and killed her husband while the latter was lying in bed, watching television. Several hours after the shooting, an emergency room physician examined the defendant, and observed multiple bruises and contusions throughout her body. A police officer who investigated the shooting and saw defendant at the scene reported that he observed bruising on the defendant’s arm. Defendant was charged was charged with first degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of murder. At trial, the defense proffered a jury instruction on self-defense, which the circuit court denied on the basis that there was “insufficient evidence for a self-defense instruction.” The jury then convicted defendant of the crimes charged. The Court of Appeals of Virginia, finding that the trial court erred in refusing to give the defendant's requested jury instruction on self-defense, reversed the convictions and remanded the case for a new trial. According to the appellate court, under the facts of the case, the fact finder could reasonably have concluded that defendant was without fault in beginning the altercation, reasonably apprehended she was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm, and, thus, was justified in shooting her husband to prevent him from killing her. The Commonwealth appealed.
Under the circumstances, was the defendant entitled to an instruction on self-defense?
The State Supreme Court held that the reasonable belief of the defendant was not dispositive of the issue before appeal. The question was whether the circumstances immediately surrounding the killing, specifically, the actions of defendant's husband at that time, were sufficient to create a reasonable belief of an imminent danger which had to be met. The Court held that the evidence failed to reveal any overt act by her husband that presented an imminent danger at the time of the shooting. There was no evidence of any overt act indicating imminent danger, or any act by the husband, when defendant shot him five times while he reclined on the bed. Defendant was thus not entitled to an instruction on self-defense. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.