Man acquitted of double murder – a case of self-defence – Part 2

In the last article we discussed the matter of Christopher Carter who had been charged with two counts of murder and then acquitted by a jury after a two week trial before the Brisbane Supreme Court. In that article we gave a brief background to the facts of the case and what happened during the trial and in this article we will discuss the legal principles involved and how it could be that the jury acquitted Carter.

To briefly recap the facts, on the day of the incident Carter went to speak to his ex-wife Renee. After things became heated Renee went inside her house before returning holding a knife.  Carter wrestled Renee to the ground and stabbed her several times in the neck and stomach to get her off him before Corey Croft, Renee’s new partner, started wresting with Carter.  Carter and Corey were wrestling and in the course of this struggle Carter stabbed Corey several times, before Renee again became involved by striking Carter in the back and was then stabbed several times further by Carter.  Carter then jumped the back fence of the suburban Upper Coomera home before throwing his clothes in a nearby bin and returning to his home after the attack.

When you first read these facts you might think that it was a case where Carter was clearly guilty. But as this matter shows the law is very complicated and can sometimes be very surprising.

Self-defence – what is a person entitled to do if they are being attacked?

We’re very often asked by people what exactly they are lawfully entitled to do if they are being attacked by another person. The answer is that there is no clear limit as to what a person is entitled to do to defend themselves – it depends entirely upon the situation that the person is facing.

In Queensland, you have the right to physically defend yourself with reasonable force, provided the force is lawful. The law does not allow you to carry anything that can be described as an offensive weapon, such as pepper spray, knives or other items that have been specially adapted, such as a sharpened comb, for the purpose of self defence.

As to how much force is reasonable, the law only allows enough force that is necessary for a person to defend themselves. For example, if A is punched once by B, A is not entitled to then punch B to the ground and then kick B’s head while he is on the ground.  This is seen to be excessive because A is using more force than is necessary to defend himself.  In another example, if B attacks A with a knife and in the course of the struggle B drops the knife, A could not then pick up the knife and use it against B unless A thought that B continued to be a threat to A’s life.

That takes us to the next issue. A person can only ever use force which is likely to cause death or ‘grievous bodily harm’ (very serious injuries) to defend themselves if they reasonably fear that their attacker may cause death or grievous bodily harm to them.  Which is why in the second scenario above, A could not use the knife against B unless A thought that B continued to be a threat to A’s life.

Applying the law to Carter’s trial

At Carter’s trial he ran the defence of self-defence. In acquitting Carter of two counts of murder, given that Carter killed Corey and Renee, the jury must have accepted that in all of the circumstances Carter was entitled to believe that he was going to be killed or sustain ‘grievous bodily harm’.  In the course of the struggle, while there may have been periods where he was able to defend himself from the attack from one of the attackers, the jury probably thought that Carter would have believed that the second attacker still posed a threat to his life and that the only way Carter believed that he could’ve walked out of the house alive was to kill both of his attackers.

What should I need to think about if I am attacked?

There is no single ‘right way’ to respond to a confrontation or attack.  Every situation is different.  Your most effective weapons are your personal judgment and your commitment to preserving your safety.

The response you choose should aim to best preserve your safety. This decision should be based on three factors:

  1. Your personal strengths – Which of the response options are you able to execute?
  2. The perceived motivations for the attack/confrontation – Is the offender attempting to steal property from you or assault you? If the offender is attempting to rob you, you need to question whether it is worth placing your personal safety at risk for the sake of property that can be replaced.
  3. Environmental factors – Are there people around who could provide assistance? Where could you run to for safety? What could you use to defend yourself if necessary?

Response options may include:

  • escaping, e.g. by running away
  • negotiating with the offender
  • doing whatever the offender tells you to, as you wait for, or create, an opportunity to escape
  • calling upon passers-by to assist
  • screaming
  • handing over property
  • distracting the offender
  • calling police
  • physical self defence

Remember, if the first strategy doesn’t work, try something else.  Keep taking action until the threat is removed. You can help prepare yourself to deal with an incident prior to its occurrence by imagining possible safety threats and visualising how you would respond.

However, during an attack a person rarely has enough time to consider the above options before responding. Things can happen very quickly and emotions, such as anger, can overcome a person.  It does not mean that the person is a bad or violent person – it could mean that they simply made the wrong decision.  And so often even good people find themselves in trouble with the law.

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