Justifiable Stabbing Under the Law

In the most harrowing scene that’s still burned into my memory, Norma gets attacked in the kitchen and handcuffed to the kitchen table before being brutally raped. Once Norman subdues Keith Summers by hitting him with a doorstop, she stabs him to death 13 times after being taunted, “You liked it.” Mind you, this is done in the pilot episode, and the scene’s done with such emotional force that it makes us the audience hate him and want him dead just as much as she does. At least that was my reaction. The murder scene’s also done with such bloody brilliance that I’d be hard-pressed to think of any scene in the whole series (or any series in recent memory) that’s had this much of an effect on me. It seared itself into my mind so much that it became the catalyst for this –spinning off the idea of “change one major thing, and everything changes.”

Anyway, I wanted to find out if indeed Norman was right: it was self-defense because Summers attacked her. If it counted as self-defense under the law, would they have been better off calling Sheriff Bulldog (as much of a lackluster law enforcement option that is IMO) rather than hiding and dumping the body?

What Exactly Does “Justifiable Homicide” Mean?

According to the legal definition, this type of killing means any action that causes the death of another person, committed as a self-protective measure. It also needs to be committed without evil intent or malice. That’s something of a grey area, seems to me those terms are somewhat open to interpretation depending on who you ask. For the act to be ruled a justifiable homicide, there needs to be solid proof that the person who was killed had the intent of causing serious bodily harm or death to the individual who ended up committing the murder. Herein might be the first problem with the Summers stabbing-death: how to prove irrefutably that he broke into the house with the intention of committing rape. He had the paraphernalia: duct tape, hand cuffs and a box cutter, but without a witness to the act: any lawyer could argue that’s circumstantial evidence. Luckily, there was a witness: Norman. So far, their case for it counting as a justifiable homicide looks pretty good.

But looking at the nature of the stabbing death, there is one potential problem: the 13 stab wounds. This could be construed as a “crime of passion,” which can’t count as getting a murder ruled a justifiable homicide. According to Justia Criminal Law, the killer needed to use no more deadly force than absolutely necessary to put down the attacker. Stabbing anyone 13 times is considered excessive under any circumstances; therefore any defense lawyer Norma got would need to be really skillful and convincing to a jury that what she did met the other two criteria for self-defense by justifiable homicide. These two criteria are:

  1. The defendant needed to believe without a doubt that she was in imminent danger of being seriously hurt, maimed, raped, robbed, or killed by the deceased.
  2. The defendant believed the use of deadly force was necessary to defend herself.

Pretty cut and dried (no pun intended) as far as meeting those two standards. But yeah, the issue that would likely get Norma into trouble: the fact he was handcuffed and seemingly defenseless while she used excessive deadly force to kill him. Killing or maiming someone who was an attacker but has first been successfully subdued makes proving justifiable homicide much more difficult. It can be argued that the blow to the head + the hand-cuffing were enough to remove the imminent threat. A somewhat similar storyline of debatable justifiable homicide is covered at the end of season 14 and the beginning of season 15 of Law and Order: SVU, which I recommend if you’re interested–also available on Netflix.

On the other hand, a defense attorney would have no problem proving Norma’s reasonable belief in imminent harm, since unfortunately she’d already been assaulted. This certainly counts as the belief being reasonable, and these circumstances are a definite consideration in determining that state of reasonable belief. When everything adds up to a state of reasonable belief, it’s weighed against what most reasonable people with similar knowledge would do in the same situation. The defendant only needs to reasonably believe that the danger existed even if it actually didn’t. A final note of interest: the case for justifiable homicide is strengthened if the deceased made prior threats. So if the arguing between Summers and Norma earlier on the front porch can be successfully painted as a threat from him, that also helps build the case for justifiable homicide.

Stand Your Ground Laws

A majority of juristdictions now have some versions of these laws that say any victim does not need to retreat from an attacker and is entitled to defend him- or herself against any form of bodily harm. Even if safety could’ve been accomplished by retreating, stand your ground laws still apply for self-defense. The kicker in Norma’s favor would’ve been the fact Summers broke into their house, and there was physical proof of that.

Bottom line: I’d say it would’ve been a gamble to some extent–calling the cops after stabbing the rapist to death (still deserved it IMO). The remaining question: How much of a gamble would it be? It’s tough to come up with a definitive answer, but even with the insular and (let’s face it) corrupt environment of White Pine Bay, she’d still have a good percentage of the law on her side. I think the outcome would hinge on lawyering up with a lawyer who has no ties to the pot-growing town.

I believe it’s complete no-brainer, but none of this is meant to be construed as any kind of legal advice. It’s applying the real-life principles to what happened in Season 1, in a more or less speculative way. If you’re in any legal/criminal trouble, go consult an attorney :)