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Killing in Self-Defense

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Phoenix Wright: ("Justified self-defense"... A plea usually reserved for when a person unintentionally kills in defense of himself. We could very easily make a solid case that it was self-defense, but...) The defense stands by the plea of "not guilty", Your Honor! (Because to plead "justified self-defense" is to say you did kill someone.)
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice for All, "Reunion, and Turnabout"

In many cultures, taking someone's life is considered one of the worst things you can do to a person, but there's one circumstance where it will often be considered justified: self-defense.

Enter Killing in Self-Defense, where an assailant is killed by whoever they were trying to harm. This can come in a variety of ways. Maybe the would-be victim managed to fight back and manages to kill their assailant in the ensuing struggle, or perhaps the would-be victim knew in advance that they would be targetted and took steps to outgambit the attacker. There are even cases where the victim had no intent to kill at all, and the death was purely accidental in nature. In fiction, and in real life, this sometimes results in a sentence for the Crime of Self-Defense.

Self-Defense Ruse is a variant, where a person pretends they had to kill someone (or stages a scene so it looks like they did).


If the assailant was out to kill the victim, then it's essentially Karmic Death at its finest.

Compare Assassin Outclassin', which encompasses all instances of foiled assassination attempts, and Guilt-Free Extermination War when this applies to large groups or entire species. Compare also Counter-Attack, especially for Video Games. Also see Inconveniently Vanishing Exonerating Evidence.

Since this is a Death Trope, expect unmarked spoilers ahead!



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    Anime & Manga 
  • Many times, the murderers in Case Closed will claim they killed their victims (generally of the Asshole kind) only to defend themselves. 99% of the time said claims won't be validated by Conan and the other detectives; a police inspector even delivers one of these killers a "The Reason You Suck" Speech where he basically recited the whole Japanese law about self-defense from memory to disprove his claims.
  • In an episode of Cowboy Bebop, former cop turned Bounty Hunter Jet runs into his former fiancee Alisa, who left him years ago, and discovers that her current boyfriend Rhint has a price on his head. Turns out that Alisa took some money out from a Loan Shark trying to keep her bar afloat, but couldn't make the payments. When they were being menaced by the loan shark and group of his goons, one mook took out a gun and pointed it at them, apparently about to kill them. Rhint managed to wrestle the gun away and then shoot the loan shark. When Jet catches and turns in Rhint near the end of the episode, he comments that Rhint has a viable chance of using a self-defense plea at trial.
  • In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Kurotawa gets rid of his would-be murderer by sidestepping as he tries to push him into a Bottomless Pit, making a snarky comment on how the rumors of newly-sent officers (like himself) meeting unfortunate ends weren't exaggerated.

    Comic Books 
  • Bat Lash: In Bat's origin story, he goes to town to report to the marshal how con men had swindled his family out of their land. The marshal is out of town, so he makes his report to a seemingly Clueless Deputy. Bat later discovers that the deputy is Dirty Cop in league with the con man. The hotheaded Bat confronts the deputy and in the subsequent struggle, the deputy pulls a gun on Bat. Bat grabs a gun that was dropped earlier and shoots the deputy. However, without witnesses, it appears that Bat shot the deputy in cold blood, forcing him to go on the run.
  • An interesting variation in The Avengers storyline The Trial of Yellowjacket. The villain Egghead and his Masters of Evil are single-handedly defeated by Hank Pym. As Pym turns to walk away, Egghead pulls out a blaster and prepares to shoot. Hawkeye, who had just arrived and watched Pym's victory, called out to his old ally and fired an arrow into the barrel of Egghead's gun just as he pulled the trigger. The resulting action caused a feedback that killed Egghead, much to Hawkeye's horror. Thankfully, both the law and the Avengers were on Hawkeye's side and he was able to walk free.

  • Before the start of 100 Feet, Marnie killed her husband with the knife he attacked her with. She's just returned from serving two years of jail for the crime.
  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Unlike most incarnations, Batman has no qualms against using lethal force; among other things, he's crashed and wrecked vehicles with enemies still inside using the Batmobile, as well as using both its guns and the Batwing's to cause explosions near enemies, usually by blowing up nearby vehicles. He also allows his opponents to be caught in explosions, as by knocking grenades near them, or shooting Knyazev's flamethrower to save Martha Kent. However, he only uses lethal force against criminals, in response to them using it against him first; Zack Snyder even likens Batman's policy in this regard to the difference between manslaughter and murder.
  • Happens in Blood Simple, when the heroine manages to fight off and kill the Psycho for Hire.
  • In Dial M for Murder, Margot Wendice's husband, Tony hires a crook named Swann to strangle her to death. However, Margot manages to stab him to death with her scissors. A Perfect Murder, the 1998 remake, has a similar situation, though in this case, the wife stabbed her assailant to death with a meat thermometer rather than a pair of scissors.
  • A Good Woman Is Hard To Find: Sarah kills Tito as he's trying to rape and murder her. Though justified, it still leaves her traumatized. Later she also kills Miller and his men, who were going to murder her if she hadn't.
  • In The Guilty, this is Asger's cover story for having killed a young man in the line of duty. It was actually a Vigilante Execution.
  • Jason's Lyric: The main protagonist, Jason, shot his abusive father when the latter obviously intended to harm himself and his mother further. But, he didn't mean to shoot fatally as he only wanted to stop his father.
  • Last Tango in Paris: At the end, Jeanne shoots Paul dead, defending herself from him.
  • Discussed in Lucky Number Slevin, when the titular character asks the Rabbi how he reconciles being a devout Jew with killing people. The Rabbi replies that one is permitted to shoot a man in self-defense, which is how he justifies it (to himself).
  • A New Hope: Right when Han Solo is about to go transport Luke, Obi Wan, and the droids to Alderaan on the Millennium Falcon, he gets accosted by Greedo, who has orders from Jabba the Hutt to kill Han for dumping smuggled goods before Imperials could search his ship. While defending his actions to an unsympathetic Greedo, Han slowly moves his hand toward his blaster and then shoots Greedo dead when he gets the opportunity. Despite Greedo clearly threatening Han's life before getting shot, George Lucas eventually found this too coldblooded even for the Loveable Rogue, so he would alter the scene so that Greedo shoots first and Han is more justified in defending himself.
  • Non-Stop: When Marks confronts a fellow air marshal he thinks is behind the plot to hijack the flight, the two get into a fight in the plane's lavatory. The other one gets hold of a gun and Marks snaps his neck before he has a chance to use it.
  • In Our Man Flint, while Flint is in a restaurant bathroom, Hans Gruber enters and tries to murder him with a gun and a knife. Flint turns the tables on him and stabs him to death with his own knife.
  • Pulp Fiction: Vincent Vega is assigned to kill Butch, but happens to take a bathroom break when Butch comes home. Butch finds Vincent's gun lying on the kitchen counter and shoots him.
  • Has happened numerous times throughout the Saw series.
    • Played with in the first film, in that it was to save someone else's life; Adam smashes Zep's skull in with a toilet tank lid before he can pull the trigger to kill Lawrence.
    • In Saw IV, Jeff sees Strahm by John's corpse and assumes he's an apprentice involved in the game; he pulls his gun and is halfway through screaming at him to ask where his daughter's being held when Strahm, who is also armed, shoots him.
    • Exaggerated at the end of Spiral, where a SWAT team unload all of their guns into Marcus when his trap makes it look like he's about to shoot them with a single pistol.
  • In Silver Lode, two of McCarty's men follow Ballard and try to kill him when he tries to flee, and they end up shot dead in return.

  • Jude has to do this twice in The Folk of the Air. The first time Valerian breaks into her room to kill her, and she has to quietly dispose of the body after. The second time she is challenged to a duel by Balekin, who intends to kill her as revenge for her thwarting a more subtle scheme. Cardan automatically assumes the first to have been an act of cold blood, but readily accepts that it was self-defense when the situation is explained to him. Given that Jude floated murdering her second victim several times before she's forced to actually do it, Cardan is less willing to listen the second time around.
  • Goldfinger opens with James Bond with a glass of whiskey in hand, who is thinking about the Mexican killer whom he was forced to kill in self-defence, and tries to rationalize about it by telling himself that he was very likely a very bad person.
  • Journey to Chaos: At one point in the first book, A Mage's Power, Eric has to fight an orc. In this verse, even the weakest orc is bigger, tougher, and stronger than the average human, and Eric is a teenager with beginner magic. The only way to protect himself and Annala, who was Tahart's initial target was to put the orc down for good. The in-house advocate for Eric's guild says the self-defense case is so clear that he won't have to stand trial for it.
  • In Last Sacrifice, Eddie Castile kills James, a Moroi assassin who was trying to kill him with a knife, after the Moroi man attacks Lissa.
  • Warrior Cats has a rule in the warrior code stating that Clan cats must not kill other cats to achieve victory, but they can kill either when outside the Clans or as a last resort.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In American Horror Story: Asylum Lana Winters kills her son, who has been on a killing spree and has vowed vengeance on his mother for killing his father, the original bloody face (because he was also trying to kill her).
  • Babylon 5: The episode "The Quality of Mercy" has a Back-Alley Doctor who uses an alien device to transfer her life energy to her patients. At the end, an escaped killer takes her and her daughter hostage, demanding he heal a wound he got from security, but she eventually realizes he intends to kill them both anyway and reverses the flow, killing him and curing herself (apparently the actual purpose of the device: executing criminals in a painless way while using the execution to save someone terminally ill). The courts decide that she acted in self-defense and drop any charges, on condition she turn the device over to station personnel.
  • Breaking Bad: DEA Agent Hank Schrader ends up killing most of the Salamanca crime family in self-defense situations.
    • While tracking down Walt, who has been kidnapped by Tuco, Hank stumbles upon a bloodied Tuco with an M16 rifle. After Tuco opens fire, Hank takes cover until Tuco has to reload and puts him down with one carefully-aimed shot. He embellishes his handling of the situation a bit in his DEA debriefing to make what happened look better on paper (such as identifying himself as an police officer, which he was actually too startled to do), but it was still clearly self-defense.
    • His encounter with the Salamanca Twins is a lot messier: desiring revenge on Hank for killing their cousin, they ambush him in a parking lot, shooting him several times over and murdering several bystanders in the process. Thanks to a tip-off, Hank knows they're coming and runs over one of the twins, Leonel, with his car. The other twin, Marco, shoots him again before grabbing an axe to finish the job. Hank succeeds in loading his gun in the nick of time with a spilled bullet to put Marco down.
  • Boardwalk Empire has a few examples of this:
    • Jimmy Darmody murders two thugs who were trying to mug him, an act which actually ends up having consequences for fellow mobsters Meyer Lanski and Lucky Luciano.
    • Manny Horvitz murders a hitman sent at him by way of a meat cleaver to the head.
  • Bones: A suspect in the Victim of the Week's murder (who was cleared when they found who did it) becomes a Stalker with a Crush on Booth, and decides to kill Brennan in order for Booth and her to be together. Booth jumps in front of the bullet, taking it in the shoulder; when the stalker woman raises her gun for another shot Brennan picks up Booth's gun and shoots her in the heart.
  • Twice in CSI: NY with Stella, then Jo. Stella had to kill her angry ex-boyfriend and Jo was attacked by the rapist whose case led her to leave the FBI for the Crime Lab.
  • The opening scene of Justified shows US Marshall Raylan Givens kill a Miami gun thug in a restaurant. The criminal drew his gun first so the killing is deemed to be justified self-defense. However, word spreads around that Raylan has previously given the gun thug 24 hours to leave town "or else". This causes doubts about the shooting, and Raylan's superiors ship him off to Kentucky. Even Raylan admits that he is not sure if he would still have killed the criminal if the guy did not draw his gun first. Throughout the series, Raylan kills more people but it is always in self-defense.
  • In the Law & Order episode "Hubris", this is how the Smug Snake villain meets his end. After representing himself and seducing a member of the jury to get himself acquitted, he tries to strangle her from behind while she's washing the dishes (his usual MO for dealing with witnesses) - she accidentally stabs him with a knife she was washing.
  • Legion: In "Chapter 22", while being strangled to death by a Nazi soldier, Charles Xavier can only save himself by telepathically ordering his assailant to commit suicide. Charles is able breathe again after the Nazi shoots himself in the head with the former's service revolver.
  • In the season 2 finale of Person of Interest the Dirty Cop organization HR tries to set up Detective Joss Carter, one of the heroes, to get killed during a bust. Carter is quicker on the trigger than her would-be assassin, so the HR member on scene improvises, pocketing the assassin's piece to make it look to Internal Affairs like Carter shot and killed an unarmed man.
  • Two Sentence Horror Stories: In "Instinct" Anika uses a hidden weapon fatally on Patrick at the end when he tries to murder her.
  • The Walking Dead, Shane murders a hostage named Randyl in order to lure Rick into the forest to kill him and claim Lori and Carl as his own family. But Rick manages to kill him in self-defense just in time for Carl to shoot Walker!Shane in the head.
  • Why Women Kill: Taylor fatally stabs Jade as the latter is trying to kill her.

  • Dice Funk: This is how the party rationalizes "the Stoneroot Massacre," in which Rinaldo escalated a fistfight into a bloodbath.

  • Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues:
    • After he gains superpowers that turn him into a bug monster, Benjy tries to hide in a warehouse that turns out to be occupied by a local gang of Neo-Nazis. They attempt to kill him, which in turn causes him to go berserk and kill them all in self-defense.
    • Daigo uses his new power to mutate a Disposable Vagrant into a lizard monster. It attempts to eat Ciro's siblings, and then Ciro himself, and is only stopped when Zia steps in and explodes its brain with her telepathy powers.

    Video Games 

    Visual Novels 
  • Some cases in Ace Attorney feature this:
    • The first time it occurs in the franchise is in "Turnabout Samurai" (i.e. 1-3), where it's ultimately revealed that Dee Vasquez killed Jack Hammer in self-defense while he was trying to murder her. Although she didn't mean to kill him, she's still charged with murder, but in a developer interview, it was said that in the Ace Attorney universe, self-defense crimes are given lighter sentences than cold-blooded murders.
    • Invoked in "Reunion, And Turnabout" (i.e. 2-2), where the prosecutor of the case, Franziska von Karma, tries to convince Phoenix to plead "justified self-defense" for the murder she believes Maya committed, since the victim had a gun and had earlier stated his intent to coerce the person Maya was channeling into admitting guilt in a malpractice incident. He refuses because he believes in Maya's total innocence and denies that she killed anyone at all (which turns out to be the truth.)
    • Used as a form of The Reveal in the second case of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. The (relatively) spoiler-free recap is that the victim, Pal Meraktis, strangled the culprit, after which he tried to dump the body into a river. Said culprit was Not Quite Dead, however, and killed him shortly after regaining consciousness.
    • Invoked again in the final case of Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, where the culprit claims he killed an interloper who was hired to steal something from him in self-defense. It's heavily implied to be a lie and it ultimately becomes a moot point seeing as he killed another person that night in what was not a case of self-defense. The sequel’s final culprit makes a similar argument about killing the victim, since Simon otherwise made it a point to never kill anyone directlynote .
    • It comes back in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice in the game's third case. Puhray was accidentally killed by Behlieb in self-defense. However, the crime was manipulated by Tahrust to make him look like an innocent victim of a random killing. This was done because Tahrust believed that Behlieb would've been convicted of murder instead of justified self-defense, both because of Khurain's highly corrupt legal system and also because Puhray was secretly a government operative. When he hears the truth, Phoenix even comments that it would've been a better idea to have him defend the killer so he could secure an acquittal on the grounds of justified self-defense.
    • It's also discussed in the DLC case in Spirit of Justice, where the defendant allegedly killed a man who had been attacking her. The case looks like justified self-defense, however the victim's autopsy showed he was struck twice: the first blow knocked him unconscious, the second blow killed him. Edgeworth, the prosecution, rightfully points out that since the defendant struck the victim after she had already knocked him out, she willfully went beyond "self-defense" and into a straight-out killing, and was therefore criminally responsible for his death. Phoenix never manages to counter this argument. The case instead shifts gears and eventually forgets about the "justified self-defense" angle entirely, even after the entire "she struck him twice" thing becomes irrelevant.
  • Danganronpa:
    • Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc has this for the first murder, when Sayaka attempts to murder Leon in order to escape the school. Leon realizes what's happening right as she's about to stab him and fights back, killing her instead. Everyone else initially looks at it as justified self defense until it's pointed out that Leon had to leave the room and get the tools he needed to break into the bathroom where she had locked herself in. Monokuma considers a killing a killing and executes Leon. The manga portrays it as both this trope and an Accidental Murder — it shows that Leon had been trying to snap Sayaka (who was still trying to kill him) out of a Freak Out, and that he didn't really mean to hurt her.
    • Come to Chapter Four of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, where Miu created a virtual reality where she intends to kill Kokichi and frame Kaito. Unfortunately for her, Kokichi caught on what she was doing and manipulated Gonta's avatar into killing her, although like Leon it's pointed out that he could have easily ended the situation non-lethally (seeing as he knew what Miu was planning), but didn't.
  • In Mica: Apoptosis, Mika responds to Tamora hitting her by brutally ripping her apart in anger. While she tries to justify it to herself later, it is clear that the force she used was way more than excessive, and she was essentially a murderer.

    Web Animation 
  • In RWBY, at the penultimate episode of Volume 6, Blake and Yang kill Adam by impaling him through with the fractured shards of Gambol Shroud, Blake's short sword. Adam had previously vowed to destroy everyone and everything Blake loved as retaliation for "ruining his life" (which she did by walking out on him when it became clear that he'd stopped being a Well-Intentioned Extremist and was simply a murderous terrorist), inflicted grave wounds on both Blake and Yang, attempted to assassinate Blake's parents, and had stalked Blake across a continent to interfere with her. It's very clear he would never have stopped hunting the girls as long as he was alive, and his death came at the end of a prolonged battle where they had given him multiple chances to back off or give up, so killing him is not presented in any unheroic way.

    Web Videos 
  • Invoked and parodied by Hydraulic Press Channel via the "extra content" segments. Lauri's wife Anni sculpts cutesy little creatures out of clay, for the sole purpose of placing them on her husband Lauri's hydraulic press platform. Lauri always "rationalizes" the destruction of these cute figures this way by arguing that all of them "can a-ttack at ANY time, so we must deal with it." Cue the piston coming down and comically squashing the clay sculpture. The more harmless the creature would actually be if it were real, the better.

    Western Animation 
  • Samurai Jack: In Season 5, Jack is at first horrified that one of the Daughters of Aku he killed was human like him, not a machine as he had previously thought. But after recovering with the help of a wolf, he stands his ground and kills off almost all of the Daughters when they strike again.
  • Invoked and played with in early episodes of South Park: hunters Jimbo & Ned justify their hunting by shouting "It's coming right for us!" before shooting in order to claim self-defense. This loophole is later closed (but they find another loophole to use).

    Real Life 
  • The story goes that Edward I killed a Mamluk assassin with his own blade.
  • A man in Portland, Oregon hired a hitman to kill his estranged wife. After a protracted struggle, the woman was able to disarm the hitman, and subsequently strangled him to death.
  • Charlize Theron's mom killed her dad in self-defense when she was a kid.
  • In 1988, actor Gianni Russo (best known for his role as Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather) got into an argument, which quickly escalated into a fight, with a man inside a Las Vegas inside a nightclub he owned, after he intervened to stop him from harassing a female patron. During the fight, the man stabbed Russo with a broken champagne bottle, and in response Russo drew a gun and shot him, which ended up killing him. Due to the circumstances of the killing, no changes were made against Russo as the Nevada District Attorney's Office ruled it a justifiable homicide.
  • This is not uncommon in the United States; every state in the Union has some form of legal homicide in self-defense, with some states being more lenient than others. The most common is what's called "castle doctrine" or "castle law"; in castle-law states, it is perfectly legal to kill someone in self-defense on your personal property without having to attempt to flee first if you reasonably believe a life is in danger or to prevent the commission of a violent crime. In a majority of states, the killer even enjoys a degree of legal protection against civil damages related to the killing. It varies from state to state, and sometimes from county to county.
    • The other most-common legal stances on killing in self-defense are "duty to retreat", in which you may only kill in self-defense if you have no possible means of escape (such as being cornered in a room), and "stand your ground", meaning you can kill in self-defense anywhere, not just in your home (but you still have to have a demonstrated reason to believe your life is in danger). Castle doctrine states could be considered "duty to retreat outside your property, stand your ground on your property."