Imperfect Self Defense California Cases
Imperfect self-defense (also called unreasonable self-defense) applies when the defendant actually believes he or she is facing an imminent and unlawful threat of death or great bodily injury, and actually believes the acts which cause the victim's death are necessary to avert the threat, but these beliefs are objectively unreasonable.
People v. Humphrey (1996) 13 Cal. 4th 1073, 1082, 921 P.2d 1;
In re Christian S. (1994) 7 Cal. 4th 768, 773-774, 783, 872 P.2d 574;
People v. Flannel (1979) 25 Cal. 3d 668, 160 Cal. Rptr. 84, 603 P.2d 1;
People v. Curtis (1994) 30 Cal. App. 4th 1337, 1354;
People v. Aris (1989) 215 Cal. App. 3d 1178, 1186, 264 Cal. Rptr. 167, disapproved on other grounds in
People v. Humphrey, supra, 13 Cal. 4th at p. 1089.) Imperfect self-defense is not a complete defense to homicide.
However, it negates malice aforethought and thereby reduces a homicide which would otherwise be murder to voluntary manslaughter. (People v. Humphrey, supra, 13 Cal. 4th at p. 1082; People v. Flannel, supra, 25 Cal. 3d at p. 674.)
The Supreme Court articulated the doctrine of imperfect self-defense in People v. Flannel, supra, 25 Cal. 3d 668, concluding that "an honest but unreasonable belief that it is necessary to defend oneself from imminent peril to life or great bodily injury negates malice aforethought, the mental element necessary for murder, so that the chargeable offense is reduced to manslaughter." ( 25 Cal. 3d at p. 674, italics omitted.)
As it relates to murder, a specific intent crime requiring proof of malice aforethought, the Flannel court held "no matter how the mistaken assessment is made, an individual cannot genuinely perceive the need to repel imminent peril or bodily injury and simultaneously be aware that society expects conformity to a different standard.
Where the awareness of society's disapproval begins, an honest belief ends. It is the honest belief of imminent peril that negates malice in a case of complete self-defense; the reasonableness of the belief simply goes to the justification for the killing." (25 Cal. 3d at p. 679; see also In re Christian S., supra, 7 Cal. 4th at p. 773 [preferring the "more precise term 'actual belief' " (original italics) over Flannel's "honest belief"].)
Thus, in order to warrant a conviction of manslaughter rather than murder under the doctrine of imperfect-self defense, the defendant must actually believe both that danger is imminent and that lethal force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury, even though that actual belief is unreasonable. (People v. Flannel, supra, 25 Cal. 3d at p. 679; accord, People v. Uriarte (1990) 223 Cal. App. 3d 192, 197, 272 Cal. Rptr. 693.)
Although the requirement that danger be "imminent" contains the concept of immediacy, "the belief [that the peril faced presents an immediate danger] need not be reasonable for imperfect self defense. . . ." ( People v. Aris, supra, 215 Cal. App. 3d at pp. 1187-1188, original italics.)
A proper imperfect self-defense instruction, then, should advise the jury to consider the defendant's belief in the imminence of the danger faced, not the belief of a reasonable person.