Almost 20 years ago, two men in Fort Myers, Florida, got into an argument, and the one who brought a baseball bat to a gunfight wound up dead.
I did the autopsy. I don’t remember what the argument was about, but as tempers frayed, the two men went to their respective homes and returned to the street armed.
The man with the baseball bat raised it and strode toward his adversary, who fired a fatal shot from a distance of about 75 feet.
I certified the death a homicide. The state attorney felt murder charges were warranted. We met to discuss my findings.
It’s reasonable to conclude that a man who went home and came back with a gun acted with premeditation. But I couldn’t see that he had good options when confronted by somebody wielding a baseball bat.
He could drop his weapon to de-escalate tensions, but he’d be defenseless if the other man attacked.
He could turn and run, but what if the other guy ran faster? He could aim to wound, but what if he missed?
He could stand his ground until his opponent was so close that the lethal threat was beyond question, but even from 75 feet, a potentially deadly blow is seconds away.
Ask a high school track coach how long it would take for the average young man to cover 75 feet if he decides to charge, I suggested.
Setting aside the deplorable choice to return to an argument armed, I’d have done the same thing, I said. A bat is a lethal weapon. It would never be a safe bet to turn and run. If I feared for my life, I wouldn’t test my aim by targeting a limb; I’d aim for the center of mass. And I wouldn’t wait for a guy brandishing a bat to come closer.
I told the state attorney it was up to him whether to prosecute, but he needed to know that if I were a member of the jury that heard the case, I’d vote to acquit.
No charges were filed.
Michael Brown, the black teenager shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, wasn’t armed, so the case for self-defense is less clear. Witness statements are hopelessly contradictory: Brown was shot in the back. He was shot while his hands were raised in surrender. He was shot while moving toward officer Darren Wilson.
I don’t know what happened, but Wilson says he was afraid.
A question common to both cases is: Can it be self-defense if, believing yourself in danger, you shoot somebody from a distance?
The Florida state attorney didn’t bring charges; the Ferguson grand jury didn’t indict. So at least sometimes, the answer must be “yes.”
Another question is: Would the answer change depending on your race?
I fear that in many jurisdictions, it would.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.