Ahmaud Arbery and Emmanuel Aranda: A Tale of Two Unarmed Black Men (Law school assignment)

I. Write a fact-pattern involving self-defense and/or defense of others, and apply the law to it to discuss whether the defense(s) would or would not apply.

II. Is there an instance from the media or fiction where self-defense and/or defense of others was raised? If so, was it successful? Did you agree with the outcome? Why or why not?

I. Hypothetical fact-pattern

On April 12, 2020, an insane, unarmed black man named Emmanuel Aranda was at the Mall of America in Minnesota, looking for white children to throw off the balcony, stories down, to their death. Aranda soon spotted Landen Hoffman, a 5-year-old white kid whom Aranda thought would be a perfect white child to kill. Aranda approached Hoffman, picked up the child, and began to throw the 5-year-old off the third-floor railing to his death. Landen’s mother, being a conservative needle in Minnesota’s haystack of leftist anti-gun nuts, had a gun on her—despite the Mall of America’s stated requirement that its patrons be disarmed for criminal’s convenience. Right before Aranda could realize his hate-filled goal to murder white children, Landen’s mother shot and killed the unarmed black man.

If Landen’s mother is charged with the murder of unarmed black man Emmanuel Aranda, could she successfully raise a defense-of-others defense? Defense of others justifies homicide when the defendant kills in reasonable response to stop an imminent lethal threat. Here, when the unarmed black man lifted up the 5-year-old white child, the child’s mother could have reacted—even forcefully—but not necessarily lethally: just picking up a kid does not suggest a lethal threat. However, once the mother reasonably suspected that the unarmed black man was intent on throwing the 5-year-old white child off the three-story balcony, the child’s mother could reasonably infer a lethal threat that would justify the use of deadly force. In that instance, although the black man was unarmed, the white child would have been within his right to shoot the unarmed black man to prevent him from throwing the white child off the balcony to certain serious bodily injury, and likely death. Thus, in that instance, Landen Hoffman’s mother could reasonably assume her 5-year-old white child’s right to self-defense against the death-minded, unarmed black man—and so the white mother’s deadly response of shooting the unarmed black man would certainly be ruled a justifiable homicide, as lawful defense of another.

II. Instance from the media or fiction where self-defense and/or defense of others was raised

Travis McMichael shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year in Georgia. The shooting arose subsequent to alleged thefts, for which the shooter suspected the decedent. Upon arrest, the shooter successfully raised the perfect defense of self-defense to the police, alleging that the decedent had assaulted and battered the shooter, pummeling him viciously. Video evidence corroborated this account, so the police released the shooter from custody, determining the event to have been a justifiable homicide.

More than zero in the court of public-opinion echoed the police’s acceptance of the shooter’s claim of self-defense. Both that court and those police carefully established two highly relevant facts:

(1) under Georgia law, the shooter was within his right to carry the shotgun that was on his person and with which the shooter killed the decedent;
(2) under Georgia law, the shooter was within his right to effect a citizen’s arrest of the decedent, for alleged previous trespass to chattels.

Despite these facts, the court and the cops failed to address the real issue: whether Ahmaud Arbery had legal cause to kill Travis McMichael in self-defense.

A person commits justifiable homicide by lawfully causing an aggressor’s death to prevent serious injury or death from the aggressor’s actions. Here, video evidence shows the decedent—a person accused by the shooter of trespass to chattels—approaching the shooter’s vehicle. As the decedent approached, the shooter aggressed: brandishing his shotgun, the aggressor shouted at the decedent. The decedent, under no duty to retreat from the imminent lethal threat, sought to disarm the aggressor—and died trying.

Consequently, the aggressor succeeded in a frivolous claim that amounted to arguing that it was the decedent’s self-defense which had escalated—to deadly force—the aggressor’s own initial assault with a deadly weapon. After all: the shooter was legally entitled to possess a firearm, and may have been entitled to effect a citizen’s arrest; however, the shooter never alleged predicate fear of imminent lethal force—which would be the standard for brandishing a shotgun at someone in the first place. After unlawfully assaulting Arbery with a deadly weapon—McMichael assumed the role of a lethal aggressor, against whose unlawful threat the law allows any means necessary, including deadly force.

Brandishing as assault. A shotgun can be slung over the shoulder among other positions that would not constitute brandishing. However, just as taking a pistol out of its holster during a confrontation constitutes brandishing—so too does holding a shotgun in front of one’s body during a conflict constitute brandishing. Brandishing is unlawful assault except where a person would be legally entitled to kill. Note too that positioning matters: the shooter could have been neutrally holding the shotgun in front of himself—facing the barrel down or up, but in any case clearly away from the suspect—in a support position at a distance from the conflict. But this was not the case: the aggressor was holding a shotgun in front of his body, while in a close-range, face-to-face confrontation with a person whom the aggressor suspected of previous theft.

The shooter alleges having previously lost personal property from his vehicle by theft—and that he suspected the decedent to have been the thief. Under the MPC’s right of recaption, the aggressor would have had the right to try and reclaim property allegedly stolen from him; however, that right has no effect on the standard held to those who would seek to mitigate unlawful homicide to justifiable homicide: imminent threat of lethal force. Trespass to chattels warrants lethal force only when joined with an immediate threat of lethal force. Here, the alleged trespass was, to say the least, not at all immediate—since it was alleged to have happened at an earlier time. Thus, the lethal-force exception to trespass would not apply, and the alleged trespass would warrant only non-lethal force.

Moreover, the aggressor never alleged the decedent was armed in the conflict; and the aggressor, being much larger than the decedent, has no claim of disparity of force.

Given that Travis McMichael was the aggressor, who assaulted Ahmaud Arbery with a shotgun, Arbery was lawfully entitled to defend himself during the confrontation in question; and the aggressor cannot lawfully claim self-defense for the decedent’s defense against the aggressor’s assault with a deadly weapon.

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