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In self-defense cases, do eyewitnesses make the difference?

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Illustration: Chris Morris

All eyes were on George Zimmerman last month as a jury of six of his peers found him not guilty of second degree murder. Zimmerman’s self-defense claim swayed them.

Here in Nevada, Ray Pineda was charged with second-degree murder, and he claimed self-defense, too. Only it didn’t work out so well for him: Last week the Nevada Supreme Court rejected his appeal and his argument that he feared for his life when he stabbed Julio Jimenez to death with a pocketknife in 1999.

The court acknowledged some evidence of self-defense, just not enough of it. Yes, Pineda and Jimenez were fighting. And yes, Pineda said he was afraid he’d be killed, but witnesses to the fight said Pineda’s fear was unreasonable. Under Nevada law (NRS 200.130), “It must appear that the circumstances were sufficient to excite the fears of a reasonable person and that the party killing really acted under the influence of those fears and not in a spirit of revenge.”

That means it doesn’t matter whether or not Pineda really feared for his life; what matters is whether a “reasonable person” in Pineda’s situation would have felt the same. The jury and judges said no.

Maybe that’s because Pineda threw the first punch. Or because Pineda had Jimenez in a headlock, asking him whether he’d had enough. Or because Pineda was stabbing Jimenez in the stomach as he asked that question.

At the end of the day, I think the biggest difference between the Zimmerman case and the Pineda case isn’t the particularities of state law or the particulars of the fight; it’s the presence of witnesses. Who knows how the Zimmerman trial would have ended if eyewitnesses had been present.

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