Self-Defense, or Not?

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer covers a troubling case: A 16-year-old girl pled guilty to "manslaughter, for killing a 49-year-old man who'd hired her for sex," under circumstances that seem like they might well amount to self-defense:

In what [the] ex-wife [of victim Francisco Pena] described as "just one mistake" in an otherwise good life, the recently divorced father of two picked the girl up at a supermarket in Burien and, after buying a bottle of vodka and Crown Royal, brought her back to his home for "a date."

Though exactly what happened the evening of April 5 remains a mystery, court documents and the girl's statements indicate that the two drank, then fought over whether she would be allowed to leave Pena's house. He wouldn't let her go until they'd had sex, the girl told police, so she stabbed him in the chest with a steak knife....

The young woman will serve 2 to 2 ½ years at a juvenile detention facility for first-degree manslaughter, Superior Court Judge LeRoy McCullough ruled Tuesday. If the case had gone to trial she faced a sentence of 10 years ....

Attorneys on both sides of the case acknowledged that the girl's alcohol consumption the night Pena was killed might have led to an acquittal at trial. Cromwell said her client could not recall the incident, her memory lost to the liquor-fueled haze of the evening....

Cara at The Curvature is outraged, on the very plausible grounds that the girl was just acting in self-defense. It's certainly permissible to use deadly force to defend against an attempted rape, or against kidnapping, so "[h]e wouldn't let her go until they'd had sex" certainly sounds like it would qualify as a predicate for lethal self-defense. This seems particularly supported by prosecutors' (paraphrased) statement that "emerging information about what could have happened — including the possibility that the victim had attacked or threatened the girl — factored into the decision for the juvenile plea deal." So if this was self-defense, why push the girl to plead to a crime that she therefore wouldn't have committed?

The trouble is that it's of course impossible to tell from the news accounts — at least the ones I've seen — whether this was self-defense, or even whether there's proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it wasn't self-defense (the rule in Washington and lots of other states). If the girl really "could not recall the incident," then it's hard to tell how much to credit her account that "[Pena] wouldn't let her go until they'd had sex." She also isn't likely to be the most credible witness: She apparently has a history of "convictions for assault, theft, malicious mischief and stealing a car," and while even convicted criminals have a right to defend themselves, jurors may naturally be skeptical of their claims (especially when some of the crimes, such as theft, are evidence of dishonesty).

Also, it's not completely clear what her (paraphrased) statement that "He wouldn't let her go until they'd had sex" means. If it means that he was essentially trying to rape her by physically restraining her, or credibly threatening her with violence, and that she killed him to prevent or interrupt the rape, then that would be self-defense (if her story is believed). But if it means that he did rape her, and then let her go, and she killed him because of what he had done to her, then that would indeed be voluntary manslaughter: An intentional homicide that wasn't justified by the need to defend against a crime (since the crime was over), but that is a lesser crime than murder because of the provocation created by the just-completed crime. It may well be that the facts are clearer than the somewhat ambiguous statement; but the press accounts I saw did not make those facts clear.

So this, I think, helps show the inevitable problems that will sometimes arise even with a law of self-defense that is at bottom fairly sound. The problem is often not in the law, but in figuring out the facts, and in predicting how a jury will react to the contested claim of facts (especially when the defendant was drunk, or when the defendant's criminal record makes the defendant a less than normally credible witness). And in such a situation, it's not uncommon for the defense and the prosecution to reach a plea agreement to avoid the inevitable uncertainties of trial.