Right to Self-Defense


Massachusetts Self-Defense Lawyer

Do I Have a Right to Defend Myself?

With the public and media focus on the 2nd degree murder charge brought against George Zimmerman many individuals are concerned with their rights when confronted with an aggressive individual. The laws vary from state to state.  Florida, as has been well reported, is a Stand Your Ground state. If you live in Massachusetts, the law is much different, placing the onus on you to avoid physical confrontations, if you can do so without jeopardizing your safety. The summary of the law of self-defense is provided as a public service. If you have questions regarding your right to defend yourself, others, or your home consult with a knowledgeable Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer.

Massachusetts Self-Defense Law


Under Massachusetts law, if you are attacked or reasonably believe that you are about to be attacked, placing your physical safety in immediate danger, you have a right to defend yourself. However, you are obligated to take reasonable steps, if available, to avoid physical combat before resorting to force. Moreover, you are not allowed to use more force than is reasonably necessary to defend yourself. You may use deadly force – force intended or likely to result in the death or great bodily harm of an assailant – only where you reasonably believe your assailant poses a threat to cause you great bodily harm or death.

Duty to Retreat

Unless you are within your home or a place where you are temporarily residing, you may use physical force in self-defense only where you are unable to escape without exposing yourself to further danger, summons immediate help, or hold the assailant at bay until help arrives. Under the Massachusetts Castle Rule, you are not required to retreat from your home or to attempt to avoid combat with an unlawful intruder. You are allowed to use deadly force on an intruder if you believe he may kill or badly injure you or another person within the home or dwelling.

Resorting to Deadly Force

Needless to say, when under the emotional strain that an assailant can cause you, it may be impossible for you to gauge exactly how much danger he poses to you or others. And, you may be required to assess your intruder’s intentions or dangerousness in seconds – or less. Naturally, in those instances where an assailant armed with a knife, baseball bat, or gun, attempts to inflict great bodily harm to you or kill you, you would be justified in using deadly force. In those instances where an assailant, by his words, gestures or some other action – such as reaching for a weapon – gives you reason to believe that he intends to inflict great bodily harm on you or kill you, you are justified in using deadly force against him.

Jury Instructions

In Massachusetts, judges instruct jurors that the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense or used excessive force to defend himself. The defendant is not required to offer any proof that he acted in self-defense. These instructions are only fair. After all, those entrusted with assessing whether an individual acted in self-defense – such as assistant district attorneys – have the luxury, within the safety of their offices, of slowly and carefully analyzing every aspect of a situation in determining whether an individual acted in self-defense. Often, what happened within a home or on a street, when the individual (now the “defendant”) took the steps he believed were necessary to preserve his life, may have only lasted only seconds. Where the assailant or intruder seemed particularly menacing, threatening, and emotionally unhinged, the defendant may have been forced to evaluate the intruder’s intentions while overwhelmed with fright. For an individual confronted by an unknown and likely dangerous assailant, a decision to forego taking the steps to safeguard his life may discover too late that the assailant intends to inflict serious bodily harm. To ensure that a defendant receives a fair trial, judges instruct juries to consider the amount of time the defendant had to act and the emotional strain he was under when he reacted.

Accused of Using Excessive Force?

If you were required to defend yourself or loved ones against an assailant and now find that you are charged with a crime, contact a skilled Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer.

Kevin J. Mahoney is a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, author of Relentless Criminal Cross-Examination, and on-air legal analyst. If you have been accused of a violent crime, but you were acting in self-defense, call us at 617-492-0055 or use our online contact form to schedule a free in-office consultation with Attorney Mahoney.