The verdict in the Queens, New York shooting of Sean Bell by New York City Police leaves many questions unanswered. The verdict, however, is not surprising to experienced New York Criminal Defense Lawyers in light of New York’s defense of justification and a history of high profile cases in which the defense has been used successfully.
The defense of justification or “self defense” as it is more commonly known has played a role in the acquittals of Bernard Goetz in Manhattan, the police officers acquitted of shooting Amadou Diallou in the Bronx and the acquittal of Police Officer Frank Livoti implicated in the death of Anthony Baez. In both the Baez and Sean Bell cases it was a Judge deciding the case without a jury that acquitted the defendants in those cases. In the Goetz and Diallou trial it was a jury that acquitted the defendants.
The defense of justification or the right to self-defense is one of the oldest defenses originally recognized at common-law. It has been codified in New York Law since at least the year 1881. Today, self defense is codified in Penal Law §35.15. Under the right of a self-defense a person may use force against another person to protect himself or a third person. The force used may even rise to the level of deadly physical force under certain circumstances. All of the elements of the defense are beyond the scope of this article but force may also be used for example to prevent a crime or apprehend someone who has committed a crime.
The defense of justification is a common defense raised by experienced New York Criminal Defense Lawyers in many homicide and assault cases. It is a powerful defense for many reasons but in no small part because once raised, the prosecution has the burden of disproving the defense beyond a reasonable doubt. What that means is that the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant was not acting in self-defense. This is often very hard to prove. It is even more difficult to prove given that an element of self-defense is the defendant’s belief at the time of the self defense. The defendant’s belief is very difficult to know it is even harder to prove in many cases.
Given the complexity of the issues involved, it is not surprising that successful New York defense attorneys such as the lawyers at Tilem & Campbell have used the defense with great success. It is also no surprise that that the police officers involved in the Sean Bell case were found not guilty.