Another Case About “Bringing About the Difficulty”

Recently, I was researching whether self-defense rights can be removed from someone who “brought about difficulty” by traveling to a place where he should know or ought to have known that he might need to resort to deadly force in defense of himself. The 1938 Wyoming massacre was the subject of my blog. State v. Bristol Case which generally states that one does not forfeit self-defense rights in that way. This view is the majority opinion, however, there are some jurisdictions that hold the opposite.

This is one of these cases, that I have previously written about, and which I wanted to mention again. Laney v. U.S. (D.C.1923); this appears to still be law in D.C. as an 1998 D.C. case note (“Reid Cites”) State v. Bristol (Wyo. 1938) … for the proposition that he was entitled to a self-defense instruction ‘untrammeled by [the] provoking-the-difficulty language embodied in [Instruction] 5.16-B.’ 5.16-B.’ Laney.”). A portion of Laney:

Appeal from the verdict and judgment of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia adjudging appellant (defendant below) guilty of the crime of murder. The indictment charged the defendant with the crime of murder in the first degree, growing out of the killing of one Kenneth Crall, during a race riot in Washington on July 21, 1919….

Defendant [William Laney]Witness testimony: I testified that “On the evening of the 21st July 1919, Mattie Burke and I went to see the theatre, then returned to my home and went to Seventh Street at Teresa Dobbins’ request to retrieve Florence and Garfield Wood. As I returned to 617 Massachusetts avenue from the Home Savings Bank, large numbers of people started shouting ‘Catch and Kill the Niger’ at me and began to chase after me. I ran ahead them on Massachusetts Avenue. As I came to 617 Massachusetts Avenue, I pulled my gun out and they stopped following me. I went into the back yard ….

“I put the gun back in my pocket and ran to the front, intent on returning to my job. The mob was attacking a house across the street, and were coming both ways on Massachusetts avenue, from the direction of Sixth and from the direction of Seventh street…. The mob arrived from the south and began firing shots and shouting “Let’s get rid of the nigger!” I fired in the direction of Seventh Street because the mob was shooting at me. I fired to protect my life….” [The shots killed Crall, who was apparently a member of the mob.—EV]

[I]According to our view, the evidence is presented in the most positive light and self defense does not apply.

This is evident from [certain] testimony that, when defendant escaped from the mob into the back yard …, he was in a place of comparative safety, from which, if he desired to go home, he could have gone by the back way, as he subsequently did. The mob was now focusing on a house at the end of the street.

Laney claims that shooting was taking place on the street. He could have been in trouble if he appeared on the streets at this point. Hence, when he … stepped out into the areaway, he had every reason to believe that his presence there would provoke trouble. We think his conduct in … going into the areaway was such as to deprive him of any right to invoke the plea of self-defense….

[W]It is up to the court of law to decide whether self-defense can or cannot be invoked under the evidence. If there are facts that do not support this defense in court’s judgment, then the matter should be decided by the court.

As a rule of thumb, self-defense is not available against the charge. However, the accused must take all precautions to prevent the possibility of injury and the need for him to die. One must have reasonable grounds to believe that they will be attacked in an attack which may result in bodily injury. Self-defense is only possible if he does everything he can to prevent it from occurring. In other words, no necessity for killing an assailant can exist, so long as there is a safe way open to escape the conflict….

The defendant in the case was not acting to defend his property or avoid an affray. One inference can be drawn from the defendant’s going to the areaway leaves, namely that he knew causing trouble by his presence.

He was not in any place that he felt he could legally be. He would be able to choose the normal street conditions to return home. However, he could not go back there with another equally viable option if it led to an affray that would nearly always lead to the death of his life.

The defendant’s move from his backyard into the areaway was voluntary. This principle is the foundation of law on self-defense: “Wherever a person participates in combat or mutual combat other than for protection, he can not justify or excuse killing the opponent in such conflict on grounds of self defense.” …

Then I found out about Laney Case from Professor Margaret Raymond Looking for Trouble: Framing, the Dignitary Interest and the Law of Self-Defense. Laney was represented, as it turned out, by William Lepre Houston, a Washington, D.C., attorney who was widely respected for being the father Charles Hamilton Houston, a key architect of the litigation that ultimately led to Brown v. Bd. Of Ed.