There are times, under the principle of disparity of force, that deadly force can be used against unarmed assailants. One of the prime examples is when facing multiple attackers.
- It’s been long recognized that when faced with two or more criminals, their tactical advantage is so great the victim is likely to be killed or sustain grave bodily harm.
- Michigan v. Ossian Sweet is one such example, where a jury found Dr. Sweet not guilty after killing a member of an angry mob that looked to do grave harm.
- Still, even today, it can take a full-blown trial for the truth to come out when a victim defends themselves against multiple unarmed attackers.
The law has long since recognized that when two or more criminals attack a lone victim, their physical and tactical advantage is so great their single victim is likely to suffer death or grave bodily harm if the attack is not stopped immediately. (And, of course, the innocent victim has no prudent reason to believe that the attack will be stopped before that point by his or her violent assailants.)
A classic case in this vein was Michigan versus Ossian Sweet, in 1925. Dr. Sweet was a black physician in Michigan, in a time when segregation was law in the South, and “practice if not law” even in the North. He and his wife Gladys purchased a home in a Detroit neighborhood that was “all-white.” Hellish racial animosity ensued, and rose to the level of deadly threat. On the day in question, Dr. Sweet had been so alarmed he had bought guns for the friends and relatives who came to his home to protect him. Hostile crowds formed, at first held back by local police. When the mob began to storm the house, first throwing rocks through the windows, the defenders inside opened fire. One white man was killed, and another wounded.
Murder charges resulted. Legendary attorney Clarence Darrow took the case for the defense. In the chain of trials that followed, all of the defenders were ultimately exonerated, either by verdicts of not guilty or by prosecutorial dismissal of charges.
Not long after this trial, the classic legal text Warren on Homicide appeared, in 1938. This was the authoritative text destined to become known as “The Bible of Homicide Law” among lawyers and judges. The author(s) made it clear that when an individual faced a mob bent on doing violence to him or his compatriots, each member of that mob shared the culpability of the entire organism of the mob…and, therefore, was equally and individually fair game for the defensive violence suffered at the hands of the lawful defender(s).
One would have thought that would have decided the issue…and one would be wrong. It has long been a societal norm in the entertainment media, from books to “moving pictures” to the entertainment and even news media of today that “only a cowardly murderer would shoot/stab/kill” an “unarmed man.” We live in a society where media memes have so overpowered collective logic, and even long-established law and case law precedent, that it takes a full-blown trial for the truth to come out, and for law and justice to prevail.
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Deadly Force.
Among the topics discussed, this guide will help you understand any legal and ethical issues concerning the use of lethal force by private citizens. You’ll also learn about the social and psychological issues surrounding the use of lethal force for self-defense or in defense of others. In addition to exploring these issues, Ayoob also discusses the steps a responsible armed citizen can and should take in order to properly prepare for or help mitigate a lethal force situation. Learn more