19 December 2011

Is Killing Someone Who Broke Into Your Home, Self Defence?

Killing in Self Defence?
A number of cases in the UK recently are certainly saying YES, it is Self Defence.

There seems to be a big trend in the UK this year for both law makers and politicians (including the PM, David Cameron), for wanting to clarify the law to state that stabbing a home intruder to death should never be punished. It should only ever be determined as acting in self defence.
"put beyond doubt that homeowners and small shopkeepers who use reasonable force to defend themselves or their properties will not be prosecuted"
            - David Cameron, British Prime Minister

Below we will be having a look at three cases where all of the people featured were found to have acted in self defence where no charges were laid. The defenders were deemed to have used reasonable force. All of the intruders were killed by stabbing wounds from a knife.

One other case will highlight what was NOT considered reasonable force and this person was sent to prison. This was a controversial case at the time.

Let's get into it.

Vincent Cooke

During the home invasion, the home owner, Cooke, had been taken upstairs at knifepoint by the intruder, Raymond Jacob. Whilst being taken upstairs by Jacob, there was a struggle and Cooke stabbed the intruder.
"At the time he was in fear for his own safety and the safety of his wife and son, who arrived at the house as the incident was happening."
          - The Prosecutor

The courts decided that Vincent Cooke had acted in self defence and had used reasonable force.

Thoughts? In this case, I doubt anyone would disagree. When criminals start moving people around, they normally mean no good. And if anyone is ever in that situation, where your wife and son arrive as this is all happening... well... In that situation, it is reasonable to assume that something very bad was going to happen either to you, and/or your loved ones.

The other key here is that the intruder was using a weapon, a knife.

This case is a clear example of reasonable force. Killing in this instance was deemed Self Defence.

Source: BBC

Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanaghan, his 27yr old son and his son's girlfriend were woken during the night, just before midnight by sounds downstairs. Flanaghan investigated the disturbance and was confronted by four intruders, one of whom was armed with a machete. When Flanaghan confronted the men, a scuffle broke out between him and one of the intruders and Flanaghan stabbed the man in the chest.

Shortly afterwards, three of the other intruders were seen carrying the body of the stabbed intruder down the street. When they heard sirens approaching, they abandoned their accomplices body on the street and fled. They were soon caught.
"People are entitled to use reasonable force in self-defence to defend themselves, their family and their property. All the evidence indicates that in the frightening circumstances that he faced, Mr Flanagan did what he honestly and instinctively believed was necessary to protect himself and his home from intruders."
          - Chief Crown Prosecutor

Thoughts? You've got your son and his girlfriend upstairs as you go down to investigate the sound. When you see the four men, one armed with a machete, what goes through your mind? What would go through any normal persons mind? That is the key. If the answer to that question is similar to what happens, what happens would be seen to be reasonable at the time and the claim of self defence will probably be established.

Key factors in this case were that there were multiple attackers and they were armed, one with a machete.

Source: The Independent

Cecil Coley

Cecil Coley, 72yrs old, was playing cards in his flower shop with a 60yr old friend of his. Four men armed with guns and knives stormed into the shop. During the ensuing struggle, Mr Coley received a number of injuries, including a serious facial injury, and his friend was knocked unconscious. At some point in the incident, one of the guns, a blank firing pistol, was fired.
"all the evidence indicated that when Coley took a knife that was on the shop counter and struck out with it, he was acting in a way that he felt instinctively necessary to protect himself while fearing for his life."
          - The Prosecutor

Coley killed one of the intruders by stabbing. Coley was deemed to have acted in self defence.

Thoughts? It must have been terrifying for him. Four men armed with knives and guns. Coley was 72. Coley was outnumbered, outarmed and much older. These are all factors that contribute towards a favourable self defence decision in court. Coley had them all on his side.

Source: The Guardian

Brett Osbourn

Note: This case is longer than the others as the circumstances need to be explained.

Brett Osbourn and four friends were watching television over a drink.

Wayne Halling had been smashing the windows of other houses in the street with his fists and head, giving himself more than 90 wounds. His wrist was cut to the bone and he had sliced half through one of his toes. He was covered in blood.

By the time Halling arrived at the home where Osborn was sitting with his friends, he was, as every witness who was interviewed stated, a "terrifying sight".

Halling got in the house because one of Osborn's companions, Kelly Hinds, had heard the commotion and gone outside. The drug-crazed Halling took her for "Emma", the girlfriend who, he screamed, had "set him up". Miss Hinds recalled that he "grabbed me and pushed me against a parked car. I immediately got blood from him on my top. I managed to push him away".

Halling pursued her back to the house. Miss Hinds managed to get inside but, even with the help of her pregnant sister, Jodie, was unable to close the door against his weight or stop him from pushing his way in. He staggered along the corridor, smearing the walls with blood.

Jodie Hinds screamed "He's in the house! He's in the house!" and Jay Westbrook, her boyfriend, struggled with him, knocking him down. But he got up again and kept going.

Osborn recalls: "There is blood everywhere, things are flying everywhere, the girls are screaming hysterically. I just don't know what to do. Then he starts coming towards me." In fear and confusion, Osborn picked up a steak knife with a 6in serrated blade that he says was on the floor. He would later tell the police: "I didn't know what he was going to do to me." Also, knowing that Jodie Hinds was pregnant, he was terrified of what might happen if she were attacked. "He came towards me, sort of grabbed me," says Osborn, "and I lunged, and stabbed him that was the only thing I could think to do. It was just the panic. He's mad, he's crazy, he's just smashed up three houses, attacked people, beaten up my friend. I didn't know what was going to happen. There's blood all over him. The only thing I could think of was to protect myself and the other people in the house."

Halling fell to the floor. Police and an ambulance then arrived: there had been several calls to the emergency services, but because of fights in Romford as the pubs closed, officers had been slow to get to the scene.
"The law does not require the intention to kill for a prosecution for murder to succeed. All that is required is an intention to cause serious bodily harm. That intention can be fleeting and momentary. But if it is there in any form at all for just a second - that is, if the blow you struck was deliberate rather than accidental - you can be guilty of murder and spend the rest of your life in prison. Moreover, while self-defence is a complete defence to a charge of murder, the Court of Appeal has ruled that if the force you use is not judged to have been reasonable - if a jury, that is, decides it was disproportionate - then you are guilty of murder. A conviction for murder automatically triggers the mandatory life sentence. There are no exceptions."
           - The Barrister

The legal situation was explained to Osborn by his defence team. Mr Bott and Mr Potter advised him that although they thought it very unlikely that any jury would reject his plea that he had stabbed Halling in self-defence, they could not, in all honesty, claim that it was a certainty. There was a small chance that a jury might decide that his use of the knife was "disproportionate". The jurors would then be bound, under the law, to convict him of murder.

Osborn pleaded guilty to manslaughter as a result of provocation. He was sentenced to five years in prison, of which three years was expected to be the maximum sentence.

Thoughts? This was (and remains), a controversial case. Many people felt that under those circumstances, Osborn had acted reasonably. He was with friends, including two females (one of which was pregnant and one was assaulted by Halling), he was clearly unstable, was covered in blood and had forced his way into their house.

The main difference in THIS case was that Halling was unarmed. There was only one of him. Osborn had used a knife. These are the facts that make a ruling of self defence difficult. Was using a knife and stabbing Halling five times using reasonable force? It's all too easy to look back in hindsight, a calm mind and some clarity of the situation.

Did Osborn need to wait until Halling had picked up a knife first? Would it be reasonable to feel that Halling would launch into a lethal attack at any moment? In the situation Osborn found himself in, I would assume that Halling was an immediate threat. At any time, he could arm himself and attack. After all, where did all that blood come from? Did he just kill someone down the street?

You COULD go for the self defence plea but again, who knows what a jury would think of using a knife against an unarmed aggressor. It's risky either way.

Because this case could have gone either way, I though it important to highlight that sometimes people in genuine self defence situations go to prison due to split second decisions.

Source: The Telegraph


Let's not forget for one moment in our calm look at the facts with the benefit of hindsight, each of these cases would have been quite sudden and quite scary. They were all desperate situations where those involved would have been shocked by the element of surprise and that shock would have endured throughout.

All genuine self defence situations are scary. Someone is trying to kill you! (I hope your training scares you from time to time as well, it should).

In this state, humans cannot make clear and logical decisions. How we react, besides acting on instinct for the untrained, will largely be a result of our own training, beliefs and make up.

What are your thoughts on using lethal force to defend yourself or your loved ones?

What are your thoughts on using lethal force to defend your property?

Are they different?

Have you got weapons handy in case someone does break into your home? Will that make any attack you use with that weapon pre meditated in the eyes of a jury? That is something you need to consider. Is there a way you can store it in a place that is more natural for you to instinctively go for it? Instead of having a knife under the bed, could you store it with some diving or fishing gear in a cupboard nearby? Things like this need to be considered. You do not want to set yourself up for a prison sentence before an intruder has even forced his way inside your home.

What about after the fact?

Those three men that were deemed to have used reasonable force in a self defence situation still have to live with them killing someone for the rest of their lives. Have you considered that? Are you inhumane? Will you take pleasure in killing? Do you look forward to it? Will you regret it every day for the rest of life?

Or do you accept that in such a situation, they have forced you to respond in a way to defend yourself. They have caused it, not you. You need to come to terms with how you will mentally view such a situation. Not just pre (as in trying to build confidence to act, though that is important), but post. How will you feel about your actions after the fact?

Does it really matter what your thoughts on it are if you spend the next ten years in prison?

Such considerations are just further reasons why we need to train in systems and methods that only use reasonable force, all of the time, such as ISR Matrix. If you are training in some ancient way where you do a sweep and then do a 'finishing' move once you have the attacker is down, you are training in an old obsolete system for the realities of todays day and age.

If you train knife defence where you do a disarm and then cut the attackers throat with their own knife, you are training in an obsolete system for todays day and age.

Spend some time thinking about what you consider reasonable actions are in the event someone (or group of people), breaks into your home. Think of numerous situations. What will you do? Maybe it will help if you spend a few moments writing down all of the realistic possibilities for your area. Then consider your appropriate options for each.

Can you fall back into one room that can be securely locked, like a safe room whilst you call the police?

What are the laws in your area?

Do you ALWAYS have all doors and windows locked? Even during the day? Do you always open the front door when someone knocks?

Food for thought.

What are your opinions of self defence in the home, or about the cases above? Do you know of other cases that are controversial?

Is killing ok?

Should we be able to use MORE force during a home invasion because it is in our home?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Opening Image via timsamoff

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  1. The last time I was overseas, I left my fiancee set up with a SEAL Pup knife and my ASP baton next to her bed, plus some training. I'm assuming using a baton, which isn't particularly legal, will effect her legal position after the fact. However I'd much rather she err on the side of safety, and deal with the jury with her skin intact.

    Slightly offtopic, the one thing that really jumped out at me reading the last case study was how much damage some attackers can take without even blinking - "smashing the windows of other houses in the street with his fists and head"
    Some of the RBSD stuff I see seem to think groin strikes etc will put down any man permanently. Thoughts like "If it goes to ground I'll just go for the balls, or the eyes" are nothing short of a cop out. Well, in my opinion. Thoughts, Adam?

  2. Hi Shaun. Thanks for your comments. Firstly, you might want to swap out the ASP baton for a maglight torch. A touch is a good thing to have around in case the power goes out and things like that. Know what I mean? And they are quality and have some substantial weight to them. Will last a long time. And you can shine a light straight into the eyes of an intruder. Can gain the element of surprise by turning it on all of a sudden.

    And yep, for sure, some people will not feel any pain. There are multiple stories of cops shooting assailants and they dont go down straight away. Cops that have gotten shot and dont go down straight away. This means two things.

    One, we need to be able to either control an aggressor using grappling skills (the best option depending on the threat), or

    Two, knock out an attacker. These are the two ways to stop an attacker. Pain will not work against a committed attacker. That is one reason why I have gone away from thinking car keys are a good improvised weapon. They will do nothing to stop a committed attacker, just spill blood everywhere. Better than using keys would be a strike to the chin, going for the knockout.

    Keep in mind that we will not always face a committed attacker so going for a knockout is not always best. The controlling option should always be the first option. It is also less force in the eyes of the law, but also ethically, it is the right thing to do.

    Plus, going for the balls or the eyes can just really piss some people off. It can also be seen as stepping up the aggressiveness in the eyes of the law.

    But if you are in a bind, go for it. Nothing should be ruled out totally. There is a time and a place for everything.

    Each of us should have our own set of tiered responses, which should be in-line with the law.

  3. Quality article Adam. I read a great book a while back by Mark Dawes called Understanding Reasonable Force. It's a really good read for martial artists and those interested in self-defence, as like your article, it features lots of case history and advice from lawyers. Although it is refreshing to see the laws on self-defence being discussed more openly, particularly by the Prime Minister, as it’s so grey at times.

    Incidentally, going back to useful every day implements, I keep a sturdy torch in my car and I also have a very nice metal parker pen in my coat pocket at all times. It's not a tactical pen it's just very sturdy, pointy and writes really well.

  4. Thanks for this interesting case study. Reading other's experience allows to plan for the worst and be better prepared. Really good point on the mag light.

    As for your question: Is killing ok? No but it is unfortunately sometime necessary. The last case was too much force but the reaction is definitely self defence and although not ideal, at least understandable. I hate it when people say that you should have controlled an attacker... try controlling a guy that does not feel anything from breaking windows with his head!!!

    A great lesson I try to remember was in a CSI episode. On a plane a guy started acting like an ass, yelling at everyone and even trying to open the plane door mid flight. The passengers tried to stop him and finally killed him to prevent him from opening the plane door. At the end of the investigation it was found that the guy was sick and had an encephalitis which caused him his distress. When the team argued at the end on what they would have done(kill or not), here's what Gil had to say: "You all have different opinions, but you've taken the same point of view. You've put yourselves in the shoes of the passengers, but nobody's put themselves in the shoes of the victim. That's the point." Sara stammers her misunderstanding. Gil continues, looking a little perturbed, "Nobody stopped to ask Candlewell if he was all right. They just assumed because he was kicking the back of Nate's seat he was a jerk, because he was pushing his call button he was bothering the flight attendant, because he was trying to get into the lavatory he was making a scene, because he was going back up and down the aisles, he was posing a threat." "He was a threat!" Catherine says. "No," Gil replies. "He turned into a threat. It didn't have to be that way. People make assumptions. That's the problem. You just did. And I think those passengers made the wrong assumptions. And now this guy's dead."

  5. Very good article on a subject that is too often left out of self defense training. Good job!

    Adam, if I can reply to your earlier comment real quick: I'll have to disagree that grappling for control is the first option and knocking someone out is the second option. It depends on the threat and context just like you said, but of course it also largely depends on the skills of the defender.

    Looking at what I can teach the average person in 10 hours, I would say it is much easier for the average person (with some self defense training) to knock an attacker out than to successfully grapple with him. In the last case you present, Jay Westbrook managed to knock the crazed attacker down... Now if this was a street confrontation, he could have decided to run away. Unfortunately that didn't seem like an option in this case, so pacifying the aggressor would probably be the best course of action.

    Now if he would have had a lot of experience in controlling-tactics by grappling, like we assume police officers have, then grappling would probably be the safest option for both parties. However, seeing as very few people have the necessary skills for this (even those who have trained self defense or a combat sport), I believe that the safest course of action in this case would be to hit the aggressor a few more times on the head to knock him out.

    Now this might seem like an unnecessary violent act, but I strongly believe that if the average Joe learns to efficiently knock an attacker out, that this would prevent much more damage than it could potentially cause. This is based on the simple notion that the longer a fight lasts, the more damage can be dealt (to both parties).

    I hope you don't mind that I went a little bit off topic, but of course the grappling vs knock-out discussion is also somehow related to the topic of legal ramifications.

    PS: I have a maglite under my bed, and had to use it a couple of times... to find my way after a power outage in my house. Be prepared applies to more than just self defense :)

  6. @ Jamie, Hi. Yep, I too am a big fan of torches. Pens are good too. As long as we stay away from torches and pens that are marketed as weapons.

    @ Richard. Interesting story. I guess the moral of the plane story is that everyday people have no idea how to handle violence. If there was one person on the plane who had trained for any length of time, they would have been able to control the guy. This story raises something I will raise with Amir next.

    @ Amir, I acknowledge what are saying about control v knock out. But as trained martial artists or self defence exponents, we should have grappling in our tool box. This is one key reason why I think combat sports are possibly the best type of system to train in week in week out, as it builds those skill sets that take time. It gives the practitioner the grappling skills. I am not sure why you think people who have trained in combat sports cannot control an untrained aggressor. Do you mean boxing? Any bjj or mma guy will be able to control an untrained attacker within a few months of hard training.

    For an untrained person or someone who has done minimal training, grappling can be harder. Although groups like ISR Matrix get some positional training up to a usable standard quite quickly.

    Sometimes it is easier to teach people strikes as most people pick it up a lot quicker and understand the context of what is being taught. Many people have no idea how to begin thinking about grappling.

    But grappling should still be the first choice. Laws demand this of us, especially trained people. And yeah, you do not always have to try grappling first. It the threat dictates you can go straight to striking, hell even lethal force if necessary.

    Thats another reason I am a big fan of big solid torches :)

    Just one other point, what do people think of choking an aggressor out? Not what you see in the movies but what is very very common in bjj and mma competitions around the world. If the aggressor will not stop trying to escape from a controlling position on the ground, choke him out?

    He will wake up again in a few seconds but I know from experience, you often forget what happened for the first few seconds. This may 'reset' an attacker and calm him down as it slowly dawns on him what happened. However, I have also seen mma fighters go wild again after waking up. What are peoples experiences on this. Perhaps another article topic?

    And also, what would a jury think if you choked someone out? Would they think you tried to kill the person because of the nonsense seen in movies where every choke is a kill? What crap. But I think it would be perceived as a very dangerous thing to do when it is not.

    Good comments all round.

  7. Good article Adam!

    Regarding the Brett Osbourn case, Mr. Osbourn is facing more trouble than he has to because of what he said, rather than what he did.

    If a crazed man covered with blood stormed into my home I would naturally assume, as would a jury of my peers I believe, that he is trying to kill me and my family. I would not tell the police, "I didn't what he was going to do." I would tell the police exactly what's on my mind--that the crazed, home invading, bloody attacker was attempting to end my life and the lives of those in my home.
    I could site numerous cases in the States where home invaders killed the homeowners and occupants, establishing my mind set.

    The attacker kept coming no matter how many times he was knocked to the ground. He obviously could have gotten up and left the home, but he chose to stay. If the attacker was not met with deadly force he would have killed someone in that house.

    Of course we don't know that for sure, but that explanation is much better than, "I didn't know what the attacker was going to do." My explanation is much better for the attorneys to work with.

    I'm not sure what makes men apprehensive about saying they were in fear for their lives during a violent attack, but they need to get over it.

    Self-defense training needs to include how to articulate behavior, decision making and mind set.

  8. Good comment. I think your last paragraph sums it up nicely. Very true.

  9. Adam: I simply haven't seen successful grappling enough times during scenario training to feel comfortable teaching regular people to use it as their first option for self defense. Now for special groups; police, doormen or civilians willing to put in the extra time and effort - sure, it's possible. But for most civilians, even those with experience in judo, jiu jitsu or even MMA, I haven't seen many situations in scenario training in which they could successfully apply their training. Now I'm not saying it's not possible, obviously if you traverse the gap between combat sports and self defense with the necessary cognitive and emotional training you can use your combat sport for self defense. I'm just saying I don't prefer it because I find training for the knockout to be more efficient for most. There is also another component: I prefer to teach my students a different set of schemata and scripts (accompanied with a different set of physical skills) for self defense than for combat sports. This means I prefer to teach them physical skills that they would not use for anything else than for self defense, because I strongly believe mixing cognitive blueprints will result in more errors being made. I realize many disagree, many prefer to use their day-to-day movements for self defense, but I believe that this means you need to repeat your training for self defense more often than if you would have a different set of moves that you would only use for self defense. It's not a big problem, it simply requires more time and effort to keep your skills applicable, but not everyone is willing to do this.

    As for choking an aggressor out, I don't teach it, so it's a little bit outside of my comfort zone... However, I would assume the most common position from where you would choke an aggressor would be from behind him. From there perhaps other tactics, such as a pin, might make more sense? In any case, if you ever do use a choke: I wouldn't recommend putting it in the police statement afterwards. Oh and if you are a police officer, then try to stay away from the neck if possible: anyone can claim to have suffered a neck injury afterwards because of police brutality afterwards... it's difficult to prove, and pretty much impossible to disprove. This is the unfortunate truth of the law: perception of reality and reality are often assumed to be the same thing, but they obviously aren't. If a witness sees you choking a man who is lying on the ground, then man... you're in a bad position in court. I will never forget one of the lectures by the late prof. Wagenaar on court cases, in which he showed dozens of cases with wrongfully accused suspects because of psychological issues like witness statements, false confessions or even assumptions on statistics. For me the message was clear: make sure the perception of reality is on your side!

  10. Amir, you raise some good points.

    As far as using grappling moves in a short time, it all comes down to the focus of the system and the background of the instructors. I have seen ISR Matrix courses that see new students apply grappling based holds in 'Alive' drills by the end of the first day. It can be done.

    But I accept that it is not for all. Just be very aware that striking is seen as using more force in the eyes of the law. That is all.

    Your points about scripts are very relevant. Especially when the defender is suffering from loss of fine motor control, tunnel vision, slow motion time, random thoughts and other effects of a surprise combative encounter. Too many options can hinder a quick effective response. But this does not exclude grappling based movements. Utilising minimal responses can harness any combative techniques, as long as they are effective under pressure.

    As for choking someone out. The one problem I see with it, is that you apply it from behind someone. In the eyes of the law, how much of a threat is the person if you are holding them from behind? Can any techniques applied from this position really be justified? I am not so sure. Yes, it is a safe technique to use. Anyone who has any experience in grappling will tell you that. It is that public perception about 'choking' that is the big concern for me. And you nailed that when you recommend not putting it on any statement if you do use it. Wise words.

    That also feeds back into being careful what is written down in a statement about ANYTHING you did. Instead of saying you did a throw, say he moved forward to push you and you pivoted out of the way then he lost balance and fell over you. Much better than saying you did a judo throw.

    Thanks for the comments Amir, interesting reading.

  11. @Adam @ Low Tech Combat
    I just found your site, so I apologize for posting a late comment.
    But on the subject of choking someone out during a confrontation. The LAPD and Bay Area Transit Police are 2 police departments that prohibit the chokehold as a means of restraint due to possible serious bodily injury or death. So depending on the amount of training and/or situation or the local laws choking someone out could be construed as possible lethal force. Your reference of tunnel vision can also go the other way as the situation may cause the defendant to hold too long and cause injury or death that way.
    BTW there are chokeholds that don't require you to be behind your attacker, like the triangle choke.
    Interesting reading, good food for thought

  12. The owners should be allowed to defend themselves. This judgement is beneficial for the owners or defenders but the Govt. should look into the cases carefully if it was needed or willful.Home invasion

  13. I just plain don't understand why "Reasonable Force" exists as a Legal concept. Aren't the Torries suppose to be against the Idea outright for giving home invaders any legal rights? I mean I thought the whole point of having a "Right-Wing" as ONE PART of the decaying democratic Statist polarities was that "The-Right-Wing" where suppose to, as well as looking after the estates of the landed gentry/giving them tax breaks, helping off-shore they're money, ""give back"" powers for people to protect themselves ant they're homes something Statism takes away to begin with.

  14. This articale represents how the extreme Statism we have in England on the Anarchism-Statist scale tries to constantly self-console itselft, with the oooh oh no but we have to protect....oohh Oh no but we have to protect the.....oh no but then we wont be protecting the....if we just do that instead....then we wont.... Our laws not only make an Ironic mockery of Statism in England but undermine its legitimacy.


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