Accident is incompatible with self-defense

By Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes III

Self-defense as a theory in criminal trials is mundane. Most criminal defense attorneys would consider for their clients who are charged with homicide or murder, the justifying circumstance that the killing was “necessary” or “called for by the circumstances”.

So why is self-defense a commonplace theory of defense?

Presumption of innocence

In our criminal justice system, “the presumption of innocence remains in favor of the accused”. (People of the Philippines v. Atilano Agaton y Obico, G.R. No. 251631. August 27, 2020). “In all criminal prosecutions, the prosecution bears the burden to establish the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt. In discharging this burden the prosecution’s duty is to prove each and every element of the crime charged in the information to warrant a finding of guilt for that crime or for any other crime necessarily included therein. The prosecution must further prove the participation of the accused in the commission of the offense. In doing all these, the prosecution must rely on the strength of its own evidence and not anchor its success upon the weakness of the evidence of the accused. The burden of proof placed on the prosecution arises from the presumption of innocence in favor of the accused that no less than the Constitution has guaranteed. Conversely, as to his innocence, the accused has no burden of proof, hence, he must then be acquitted and set free should the prosecution not overcome the presumption of innocence in his favor. In other words, the weakness of the defense put up by the accused is inconsequential in the proceedings for as long as the prosecution has not discharged its burden of proof in establishing the commission of the crime charged and in identifying the accused as the malefactor responsible for it.” (People of the Philippines v. Ariel Quiñones y Loveria, G.R. No. 250908. November 23, 2020). 

Shifting of burden of evidence 

                There are however instances when the burden of evidence (not the burden of proof), shifts to the accused. One such instance is when the accused admits killing the victim, but claims to have done so “in self-defense”. “Considering that self-defense is an affirmative allegation and totally exonerates the accused from any criminal liability, it is well settled that when it is invoked, the burden of evidence shifts to the accused to prove it by credible, clear, and convincing evidence. The accused, claiming self-defense, must rely on the strength of his own evidence and not on the weakness of the prosecution. Self-defense cannot be justifiably appreciated when uncorroborated by independent and competent evidence or when it is extremely doubtful by itself.” (People of the Philippines v. Edgar Guarin y Veloso a.k.a. “Banong”, G.R. No. 245306. December 2, 2020). 

Elements of self-defense

However, to successfully claim self-defense, the accused must marshal three (3) essential elements.   “The essential elements of self-defense are the following: ( 1) unlawful aggression on the part of the victim; (2) reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel such aggression; and (3) lack of sufficient provocation on the part of the person defending himself. To invoke self-defense successfully, there must have been an unlawful and unprovoked attack that endangered the life of the accused, who was then forced to inflict severe wounds upon the assailant by employing reasonable means to resist the attack. People of the Philippines v. Edgar Guarin y Veloso a.k.a. “Banong”, G.R. No. 245306. December 2, 2020).

Interestingly, in cases where the accused invokes self-defense but in the same breath, he/ she claims to have killed the victim “accidentally”, too, will the theory hold water in a trial that seeks justice for the death of the deceased?

This was answered in People of the Philippines v. Dionicio Ville y Santos, G.R. No. 252457, which was handed down on December 1, 2021.

In the case, the Supreme Court stressed that a claim of “accidental killing” is inconsistent with an invocation of self-defense. This is because what undergirds self-defense is the implied admission by the accused of feloniously and voluntarily killing the victim with conscious intent, but in order to preserve the accused’s life. 

“An accused is presumed innocent; thus, it is incumbent upon the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt the crime charged rather than for the accused to prove his innocence. However, a person invoking self-defense in effect admits to having performed the criminal act but claims no liability therefor, because the actual and imminent danger to his or her life justified his/her infliction of harm against an aggressor. This dispenses with the prosecution’s burden to prove that the accused performed the criminal act; what remains to be established is whether the accused was justified in inflicting the harm.  This the accused must prove with clear and convincing evidence. X x x”.

Accident v. self-defense

Moreover, this Court has observed Ville’s tendency to invoke mixed defenses. While he admitted the commission of the crime in order to preserve his own life, he maintained that Danilo’ s death was an accident and that he had no intention to kill his son. This renders his testimony dubious. Accident presupposes lack of intention to kill the victim, while self-defense presumes voluntariness, induced only by necessity. Indeed, if there is truth to either of his claim, his natural course of action was to assist the victim, or at the very last, report the incident to the authorities. On the contrary, Nina testified that after the incident, Ville hid the sumpak in a canal and fled. This was strengthened by the testimony of Shirley that she shouted for help and was the one who brought Danilo to the hospital, together with the latter’s siblings and cousins, contrary to Ville’s claim that he called Shirley and asked her to bring the victim to the hospital. Certainly, the justifying circumstance of self-defense or the exempting circumstance of accident cam1ot be appreciated considering Ville’s flight from the crime scene and his failure to inform the authorities of the incident. Furthermore, Ville’s failure to surrender the weapon used to kill Danilo to the authorities is inconsistent with a clean conscience and, instead, indicates his culpability of the crime charged.”

Self-defense justifies the killing of one’s attacker. It is an exculpating circumstance that could allow an accused to walk free of the courtroom if he or she is able to convince the judge that the killing was borne of a “ state of necessity” as he/ she had to choose between getting seriously harmed or killed, or killing the unlawful aggressor. The natural instinct of self-preservation will surely tilt the action in favor of the latter.

The killing may be prompted by extreme circumstances which had benumbed or deadened the accused’s senses, but the act is always voluntarily done and with consciousness. Accident on the other hand presupposes the occurrence of an event which is beyond one’s control.

“Self-defense by accident” therefore is not only a legal misnomer or paradox, but is one which cannot find support in law or jurisprudence. It will strain credulity as it would go against the law of evidence, too. If one kills another to save his/ her own life, the killing is characterized by voluntariness and cannot happen by mere accident. Human experience teaches that the two (2) cannot co-exist in a given case.

                Indeed, “…The law of evidence is the creature of experience rather than logic. (James Bradley Thayer, p. 40, “Wigmore” by Porwancher).

(The author is the senior partner of ET Reyes III & Associates– a law firm based in Iloilo City. He is a litigation attorney, a law professor and a book author. His website is