Who has a right to self-defense?

From Mother Jones:

One Friday last May, the sun had not yet risen when a SWAT team ignited a flash-bang grenade outside Marvin Guy’s apartment in Killeen, Texas. Officers were trying to climb in through a window when Guy, who had a criminal record and was suspected of possessing cocaine, opened fire. Four officers were hit; one of them was killed.

Five months earlier, 100 miles away, a SWAT officer was shot during a predawn no-knock raid on another house. In that case, too, police threw a flash-bang grenade and tried to enter the residence. Henry “Hank” Magee, according to his attorney, grabbed his gun to protect himself and his pregnant girlfriend. “As soon as the door was kicked in, he shot at the people coming through the door,” says his attorney, Dick DeGuerin. With his legally owned semi-automatic .308 rifle, Magee killed one of the officers.

The cases are remarkably similar, except for one thing: Guy is black, Magee white. And while Magee was found to have acted in self-defense, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Guy. He remains in jail while he awaits trial.

8 thoughts on “Who has a right to self-defense?

  1. There are certainly a number of problems with these cases. But there is one more difference that may have been relevant to the way things were handled. Magee legally owned the firearm he used. Presumably, Guy didn’t, since his previous charges include bank robbery, theft, burglary, and felony in possession of a firearm. (Magee had previous arrests, too, but for non-violent offenses: DWIs and marijuana possession.)

  2. Hi RJ, right, from the story above it’s possible that Guy didn’t legally own the firearm he used (though it’s not safe to assume that because it’s a charge he’s faced in the past)–but presumably no one is going to suggest that if true this is an appropriate justification for the difference between being found to have acted in self-defense and facing the death penalty.

  3. There are a lot of ways racism can enter into a legal proceeding. One is through the quality of lawyers. Magee’s lawyer is widely considered the best trial lawyer in Texas.

  4. “but presumably no one is going to suggest that if true this is an appropriate justification for the difference between being found to have acted in self-defense and facing the death penalty.”

    No, of course that shouldn’t alone be a justification for such different treatment. That would be wildly disproportional. I meant only to say that if one has lost the right to possess a firearm because of a previous felony conviction (hard to tell with certainty whether that is the case here, but seems very likely – aren’t violent felons denied the right to possess firearms? or perhaps he was actually convicted of other, non-violent charges?), and if one uses a firearm to shoot another person, the fact that one is not legally entitled to possess the firearm in the first place surely has *some* bearing on whether one’s claim of self-defense can hold up. And that, in turn bears on whether this is an accurate characterization of the situation: “The cases are remarkably similar, except for one thing: Guy is black, Magee white.” Of course, as Anne helpfully adds, there are lots of avenues for racism, and it’s hard to believe that race didn’t factor at all in the outcomes. But it also doesn’t seem to be obviously as pure a case of race being *the* deciding factor as the article suggests. I think we know that we have a problem with structural racism in the judicial system. I don’t think it’s easy to determine whether this case is a good illustration of that structural racism.

  5. Presumably just as McGee was found to have acted in self-defense, so might Guy. Just because McGee won on self-defense doesn’t mean Guy won’t; the defense is equally available to both. I think you’re running together here self-defense–which really has nothing to do with anything–and prosecutorial discretion with regards to the sentence pursued. Also, this sort of anecdotal case comparison is really hazardous; maybe there are broader trends, but not clear there’s much to learn by looking at just two cases.

  6. No, the issue is not that one was found to be acting in self defense and we do to know yet whether the other will. The issue is that both cases went before a grand jury, one was found to have acted in self defense, one let the pursuit of the death penalty go through. Even if Guy is ultimately found to have acted in self-defense, their treatment will still be disparate.

  7. RJ: “if one uses a firearm to shoot another person, the fact that one is not legally entitled to possess the firearm in the first place surely has *some* bearing on whether one’s claim of self-defense can hold up.”

    Why do you think this is so? I just looked at section 9.31 of the Texas Penal Code on self-defense and it doesn’t contain anything that suggests that one is not entitled to defend oneself with an illegally possessed firearm; there are some sections suggesting that violating the firearm laws will nullify your self-defense claim, but they only apply “the actor sought an explanation from or discussion with the other person concerning the actor’s differences with the other person,” which doesn’t apply here. (Translated from legalese, I think this means that if I come up to you waving a gun and start an argument, I’m not going to be able to claim self-defense.)

    Guy presumably will be liable to prosecution for illegal possession of a firearm, as Magee is liable to prosecution for drug possession, but that’s not necessarily relevant to the self-defense claim.

    (Disclaimer; I am not any kind of lawyer, and I’ve only looked at one section of the Penal Code.)

  8. Matt: I’m no attorney, either; I don’t know the legal ramifications. In fact, just in virtue of going to the Texas Penal Code, you surely now know more than I do. But here was my basic thought. Suppose they both acted in self-defense. They have a right to act in self-defense. But they do not have a right to self-defense of any kind (e.g., there are certain weapons they cannot use – weapons that are illegal for citizens to possess). Moreover, they do not even have the same rights to self-defense, for Guy, but not Magee, has forfeited his right to self-defense using a firearm. Both Magee and Guy claim to have acted in self-defense using a firearm. Take that at face value. In that case, Magee, but not Guy, had the right to act in such a manner. So Guy, but not Magee, should be subject to penalty.

    Perhaps that’s not the way things get carved up legally, and I’d be happy to learn otherwise. I’m just not sure that dividing the case up into (i) self-defense and (ii) illegal possession of a firearm includes all the relevant facts, for it seems to me that the fact that (iii) the illegally possessed firearm was used in the self-defense is itself relevant.

    Perhaps I’m off base about the legal issues, but it is (iii) that makes me think (a) there is reason to treat the cases differently and (b) there is no clear justification for the two facing such radically different outcomes, for (iii) seems much too lightweight to distinguish between death penalty and exoneration. (On that I agree with philodaria’s response to my first comment.) But the fact that (iii) was effectively buried by the article at Mother Jones makes me wonder whether there are other relevant differences that aren’t made clear in the article. If there aren’t, then it appears that the extent of the differential treatment in the judicial system is unjustified.

    One thing both cases do is highlight some problems with such police tactics. And it is a good reminder that, as Anne notes, legal resources matter, and these are not evenly distributed.

Comments are closed.