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To what extent one who is threatened may go in defending himself and whether he has availed himself of all proper means of escape ordinarily are questions of fact for the jury, to be decided in light of all the existing circumstances. The jury must receive complete instructions from the trial judge, including an explanation of the proper factors to be considered in determining the issue of self-defense. The fact that one is threatened in his own home or in a place where he has exclusive right to be is one of the more important factors in making such determination, but this factor is not without limitations in its application. In passing upon the reasonableness of the force used by the defendant, the jury should consider evidence of the relative physical capabilities of the combatants, the characteristics of the weapons used, and the availability of maneuver room in, or means of escape from, the area in which the confrontation occurs. In determining whether all proper means have been taken to avoid the use of deadly force, the jury should be instructed that the location of the assault is an element of major importance in their consideration. One assaulted in his own home does not have the unlimited right to react with deadly force without any attempt at retreat. The importance of the location of the assault and the surrounding circumstance should be stressed to the jury.
Defendant resided with her two children in a one-story ranch house in Sharon. The victim, to whom the defendant was engaged, had lived in the house since 1971. The defendant had received several severe beatings at the hands of the victim, and on at least one occasion, he had threatened to kill her and the children when asked to leave the defendant's home. On the morning of the homicide, defendant and the victim had an argument. Defendant retreated to the basement downstairs, where the children were having breakfast. Shortly thereafter, the victim opened the door at the top of the basement stairs and threatened to kill the defendant and the children. Defendant started to call the police, but hung up the telephone when the victim said he would leave the house. However, the victim returned to the top of the stairs, at which time the defendant took a .22 caliber rifle from a rack on the wall and loaded it. Defendant again started to telephone the police when the victim started down the stairs. She fired a fatal shot. More than five minutes elapsed from the time the defendant went to the basement until the shooting took place. Defendant was tried and convicted of manslaughter. On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that she had a duty to retreat from her home before resorting to the use of deadly force.
Did the trial court err in instructing the jury that the defendant had a duty to retreat from her home before resorting to the use of deadly force?
The court affirmed the decision of the trial court. The court held that Massachusetts did not adopt the majority rule that one assaulted in one's own home need not retreat. The jury was properly instructed that for the shooting to have been a proper exercise of self-defense, it had to find that defendant had no probable means of escape. The jury was properly required to consider the totality of the circumstances in deciding whether the shooting was in self-defense.