In criminal law, the claim that the deceased victim “needed killing” is known as “the Texas defense”, also designated as “misdemeanor homicide”. On Wednesday, 27 August 2014, a jury acquitted David Barajas of murder at the Brazoria County Courthouse in Angleton, Texas. Barajas had been accused of fatally shooting one Jose Banda in December 2012 near Alvin, minutes after a car driven by Banda hit a truck that Barajas and his two sons were pushing after it ran out of gas, killing twelve-year-old David Jr. and eleven-year-old Caleb. Although Banda was found slumped in his seat at the crash site, with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit and a bullet wound to the head, no witnesses saw a shooting, and no weapon was ever recovered. As the case was about to go to trial, Texas media picked up an analysis by kibitzing Houston defense attorney Joel Androphy: “It’s not the right way to do it, but jurors a lot of times make judgments based on moral responsibility, not legal responsibility.” Amplifying this point, the commentariat cited a case two years earlier, when the grand jury in Lavaca County, Texas, declined to indict the man who admittedly pummeled to death the alleged molester of his 5-year-old daughter.
The Texas defense is arguably a misnomer, given that its definitive statement is found in a 1870 appellate court ruling in Kentucky:
Speaking of assured and continual danger to life, this court, in the case in 2 Duvall, defined the principle of self-defense as follows: “Like the sword of Damocles, the threatened danger is continually impending every moment and everywhere. The threatened man may be waylaid or otherwise attacked unawares without the possibility of defense or of escape, and may never, day or night, feel safe, or actually be so, while his enemy lives, who whenever he may see him or wherever he may find him may be anxious and able to kill him. And does either human or divine law require such prolonged agony and peril; or can the best and most prudent men suicidably forbear to strike for riddance, if they have the courage to defend themselves, in the only way of secure and lasting escape?”
Now if a man feels sure that his life is in continual danger, and that to take the life of his menacing enemy is his only safe security, does not the rationale of the principle as thus defined allow him to kill that enemy whenever and wherever he gives him a chance and there is no sign of relenting? But before a jury should acquit they should be well satisfied that the killing was not the offspring of bad passion, but solely of a thorough and well-founded belief that it was necessary for security. And here lies the danger of misapplication. It is difficult to be assured that the act was thus necessary and done in good faith. Of that, however, the jury and not the court must judge; and in that judgment they can not be too self-poised and careful before they conclude that the peril of the accused was imminent and incessant, and that he, well assured of it, honestly believed that his only safe remedy was to destroy the power to execute the threats. And if he was authorized to believe and did considerately apprehend that his own exile or the death of his persevering enemy, watching to kill him, was, like the tabula in naufragio, the only safe mode of rescue, might he not lawfully choose his remedy and throw his enemy overboard? Why should he be required still to wait an assault and to endure longer haunting and hazard when he might at any moment become the victim of his own forbearance, and when self-defense might be impossible or unavailing? Why let the sword still hang over him? Why not remove it out of sight when he may, and not passively linger until it unexpectedly falls and strikes his heart unresisted? The recognition of the perfect right to do so in such a crisis appears to us consistent with both principle and policy. It seems to us conservative. It might afford more security and prevent more assassinations than the lame law of punishment ever could, and the manly and opportune assertion of this universal birthright may teach the reckless who thus maliciously beset the pathway of the peaceable that they will be likely to bring destruction on their own heads. This preventive principle will go hand in hand with civilization and philosophical jurisprudence as a palladium of personal security and social order and peace. Properly guarded, it may do more good than harm.—Carico v. Commonwealth, 70 Ky. (7 Bush) 124 (1870)
A more casual application of the same principle took place in the same year, well above the Mason-Dixon line in Anderson, Indiana:
A TRAGEDY THAT SHOCKED ANDERSON.
Louis Titherington was a cab driver who lived in the house now occupied by Dr. J.W. Fairfield as a sanitarium at the corner of Meridian and Thirteenth streets.
Titherington went to his home on the 19th of October, 1870, in an intoxicated condition and became engaged in an altercation with his wife and sister-in-law, a Miss Jenkins, who lived in the family. He was in the act of severely chastising Miss Jenkins, and, it is said, had whipped his wife, when Daniel Jenkins, her brother, came into the house and ordered him to desist in his abuse, when he turned upon Jenkins and made threats of violence, whereupon Jenkins drew a revolver and opened fire upon Titherington, filling his body with leaden missiles, causing almost instant death. Jenkins was placed under arrest and indicted by the Grand Jury, and on a trial in the Circuit Court was acquitted on the ground that the killing was justifiable.
On the trial was exhibited a large lock of hair which Titherington had pulled out of the head of one of the women. Titherington was a familiar personage on the streets of Anderson for a quarter of a century, having been at one time a half owner of the bus and transfer line, which was a good paying property.
“Lew,” as he was known by the people, was not a bad man when not drinking, but disposed to be unruly when imbibing to excess. He was mixed up in a great many street fights and other troubles, the result of too much liquor. His headquarters for many years before his marriage was at the old United States Hotel. He was known by every traveling man from New York to San Francisco who stopped in Anderson.
John Alderman was for many years his partner and they made money fast and spent it with lavish hands. One of the jurors who tried Jenkins said after the trial was over that “the jury thought that he was not exactly justified, but that Titherington needed killing anyway, and that they just voted to let him off.”
Neal Daugherty was City Marshal at the time of the killing and arrested Jenkins. Andrew J. Griffith was Sheriff and Randle Biddle his deputy.
Titherington left a widow, but no children. He was a brother to Robert Titherington, who yet lives in Anderson.—John La Rue Forkner and Byron H. Dyson, Historical Sketches and Reminiscences of Madison County, Indiana, 1897, pp. 511-512
Unsurprisingly, the Texas defense was popular with the Texas Rangers. In his memoirs, James B. Gillett describes its application to a fellow Ranger:
After our return from our month’s scout in Mexico, Captain [George W.] Baylor received a new fugitive list from the Adjutant-General, and in looking over its pages my eyes fell on the list of fugitives from Hamilton County, Texas. Almost the first name thereon was that of James Stallings with his age and description. I notified Captain Baylor that Stallings was a fugitive from justice. Baylor asked me what Stallings had been indicted for and I replied for assault to kill.
“Well, maybe the darned fellow needed killing,” replied the captain. “Stallings looks like a good ranger and I need him.”
Not many days after this I heard loud cursing in our quarters and went to investigate. I found Stallings with a cocked pistol in his hand standing over the bed of a ranger named Tom Landers, cursing him out. I could see Stallings had been drinking and finally persuaded him to put up his pistol and go to bed. The next morning I informed Captain Baylor of the incident, and suggested that if we did not do something with Stallings he would probably kill someone. The captain did not seem inclined to take that view. In fact, I rather believed Captain Baylor liked a man that was somewhat “on the prod,” as the cowboys are wont to say of a fellow or a cow that wants to fight.—James B. Gillett, Six Years with the Texas Rangers, 1875-1881, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925, pp. 264-265
Melville Davisson Post, a prolific chronicler of crime in Harrison County, West Virginia, provided a popular account of the Texas defense in 1897:
If a Mexican was so short-sighted as to slip his knife into a tenderfoot, some one shot the Mexican, and the crowd “lickered up.” If the faro dealer killed his man, it was usually because the man needed killing, and certainly the faro dealer was the best judge of this. On the contrary, if one shot the dealer, this was considered a public calamity, demanding an explanation, since the dealer was a quasi public functionary, and the convenience of the citizen required that the game should continue. One’s life was perhaps the cheapest thing below the Central Pacific Railroad, and it was entirely the duty of the individual to see that it was maintained. If one was unsteady on the trigger, or caught napping on the draw, one was held to have died by virtue of contributory negligence.
To be sure there was law, and machinery for its execution; but the machinery was liberal, and had ideas of its own, and the law adhered with supreme unconcern to its maxim—De minimis non curat lex.—Melville Davisson Post, The Man of Last Resort, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897, pp. 62-63
In 1906, Ambrose Bierce pointed out the deficiency of the underlying principle: “HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another—the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.” And yet no advantage of the lawyers is to be lost on the blameless slayer. As a red-blooded American, I wish and hope for naught but praiseworthy homicides to take place in our fair land. Short of that, may all our righteous homicides be found praiseworthy by the juries of our peers.