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Justifiable Homicide and Oklahoma Self-Defense Laws

Most people think of the term "homicide" as describing the most serious violent felony. However, the term simply means the killing of a person, and this act is not always illegal. Oklahoma law defines both "excusable homicide" and "justifiable homicide" as killings which are not unlawful, but instead may be necessary in the protection of one's personal safety or in protecting the safety of others.

However, any killing in self defense is carefully scrutinized. Despite Oklahoma having permissive self-defense laws, including both the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws, simply claiming "self-defense" is not enough to support a finding of justifiable homicide. Police and district attorneys will scrutinize any act of homicide to determine if a killing was indeed justifiable, or if a person acted outside the realm of the law and utilized unnecessary force.

If an investigation determines that there is enough evidence to support a criminal charge, the defendant may be charged with murder or manslaughter, even if he or she feels justified in using force to protect oneself or one's family.

It is important to understand what qualifies as excusable or justifiable homicide so that one can accurately interpret and abide by self defense laws in Oklahoma.

Excusable Homicide – 21 O.S. § 731

Homicide is considered by state law to be "excusable" under the following conditions:

  • The death occurs by accident or misfortune when there is no unlawful act, intent, or means, and when the person responsible for the death was not negligent, practicing "usual and ordinary caution."
  • The death was an unfortunate accident committed in "the heat of passion" if the person responsible for the death was subject to sudden combat or "sudden and sufficient provocation" if that person did not use a dangerous weapon or take undue advantage over the victim or perpetrate the death in a cruel and unusual manner.

If a death is pure accident without negligence, or if it is an accidental death arising from defending against a sudden attack, the person who commits the act is held harmless by criminal law.

Use of Deadly Force by Law Enforcement - 21 O.S. § 732

In certain situations, a police officer or other law enforcement agent may find it necessary to use lethal force in order to protect his or her personal safety or the public safety when dealing with a violent criminal. Not all incidents of deadly force by a law enforcement officer are lawful; however, in many cases, the killing of a suspect or inmate may be justified:

  • The officer is lawfully carrying out a court ordered judgment of the death penalty
  • The officer is attempting to carry out an arrest or to prevent an escape from custody, if the officer reasonably believes that (1) such force is necessary to prevent resistance or escape, and (2) there is probable cause to believe that the person has committed a violent crime, is armed with a deadly weapon, or is likely a danger to human life unless apprehended immediately
  • The officer reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to protect himself or herself or others from serious bodily harm during the execution of his or her legal duties
  • The force is necessary to prevent the escape of a violent inmate likely to inflict serious bodily harm or to endanger human life if not apprehended

The United States and the state of Oklahoma support due process and the right of every person to obtain justice through a fair trial. However, if a law enforcement officer is in grave risk of serious injury or death in trying to effect that process and to protect the public welfare, the law allows him or her to use necessary force to prevent such harm. Oklahoma is not a police state. Law enforcement agents must act reasonably, responsibly, and lawfully when using deadly force.

Justifiable Homicide – 21 O.S. § 733

While "excusable homicide" is an accidental death from lawful, non-negligent actions not intended to bring about death, justifiable homicide is the intentional use of lethal force in order to protect oneself or one's family. State law defines justifiable homicide as follows:

  • When resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to commit any felony upon him, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is; or,
  • When committed in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, when there is a reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished; or,
  • When necessarily committed in attempting, by lawful ways and means, to apprehend any person for any felony committed; or in lawfully suppressing any riot; or in lawfully keeping and preserving the peace.

While the law states that justifiable homicide occurs in an attempt to resist a felony, in fact only in the case of violent felonies against a person is lethal force justified. Oklahoma's self-defense laws allow a person to use deadly force against a person who jeopardizes personal safety, but not in defense of property.

If a "self-defense" claim is asserted, investigators will carefully work to determine whether the use of lethal force was necessary, reasonable, and lawful. If someone shoots and kills a masked intruder breaking into his or her home in the dark of night, it would be considered reasonable for the homeowner to have assumed that his or her life was in jeopardy. If a homeowner frightens a burglar away and shoots the suspect in the back during an attempt to flee, the use of lethal force is unnecessary and the shooter will likely be charged with murder.

Castle Doctrine

Oklahoma self defense laws uphold the theories of the Castle Doctrine , based upon the belief that "A man's home is his castle," and that every person has the right to be safe in his or her own home. This doctrine is explicitly stated in law in 21 O.S. § 733 (1) when it says that homicide is justifiable when it occurs in the attempt to prevent murder or a violent felony "in any dwelling house in which such person is." This right is explained in more detail in the Oklahoma Self Defense Act in 21 O.S. § 1289.25, Physical and Deadly Force Against Intruder:

B. A person or a owner, manager or employee of a business is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:

  • The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, occupied vehicle, or a place of business, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against the will of that person from the dwelling, residence, occupied vehicle, or place of business; and
  • The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.

If a person illegally and forcibly enters another's home, vehicle, or place of business, the Self Defense Act says that such a person is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit and illegal act of force or violence; therefore, occupants of such place have the right to protect themselves and others against this presumed imminent danger.

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground laws have come under close scrutiny in recent years, but Oklahoma holds fast to its belief that its citizens have the right to protect themselves. The state's "Stand Your Ground" clause is written in the Oklahoma Self Defense Act:

"A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."