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For killing to be in self-defense, the defendant must actually and reasonably believe in the need to defend. If the belief subjectively exists but is objectively unreasonable, there is "imperfect self-defense," that is, the defendant is deemed to have acted without malice and cannot be convicted of murder, but can be convicted of manslaughter. To constitute "perfect self-defense," that is., to exonerate the person completely, the belief must also be objectively reasonable. As the legislature has stated, the circumstances must be sufficient to excite the fears of a reasonable person. Cal. Penal Code § 198. Moreover, for either perfect or imperfect self-defense, the fear must be of imminent harm. Fear of future harm, no matter how great the fear and no matter how great the likelihood of the harm, will not suffice. The defendant's fear must be of imminent danger to life or great bodily injury.
Defendant was charged with murder under Cal. Penal Code § 187, and use of a knife in the commission of the murder, Cal. Penal Code § 12022(b). A jury convicted him of second degree murder and determined the knife use allegation was true. At trial, defendant's counsel attempted to introduce expert testimony on the sociology of poverty, and the role of honor, paternalism, and street fighters in the Hispanic culture. Defendant appealed the trial court's denial of this evidence.
Did the trial court properly exclude the testimony of defendant's proposed expert witness regarding self-defense in the Hispanic culture?
The appellate court affirmed, and held that this expert testimony was irrelevant as to whether defendant actually believed he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily injury, and whether such a belief was objectively reasonable. The appellate court, quoting the trial court, stated that the courts were not prepared to sanction a "reasonable street fighter standard." Absent evidence that defendant was in fear of imminent death or great bodily injury, the jury had no evidentiary basis from which to conclude that defendant subjectively had an actual but unreasonable fear that negated malice aforethought.