Self-Defense and the Mistaken Racist

New Criminal Law Review, Vol. 11, 2008

61 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2007


How should the law respond when one person (D) kills another person (V), who is black, because D believes that V is about to kill him, but D would not have so believed if V had been white? Should D be exonerated on grounds of self-defense? Some commentators argue that D's claim of self-defense should be rejected. He should be convicted and punished.

I argue, however, that denying D's claim of self-defense would be at odds with the principle that criminal liability and punishment should only be imposed on an actor if he chooses to cause or risk causing a harm when the law does not permit him to make such a choice, and not for possessing or choosing to possess racist or otherwise illiberal beliefs or desires. Moreover, insofar as this principle can fairly be characterized as one to which a liberal state must adhere, then a liberal state should acknowledge D's claim of self-defense.

Keywords: self-defense, reasonable person

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Garvey, Stephen P., Self-Defense and the Mistaken Racist. New Criminal Law Review, Vol. 11, 2008. Available at SSRN: or

Stephen P. Garvey (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-8589 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

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