X~Slayer(ALE), I’m not sure that that’s entirely correct – I’m talking about the “person need only believe he was in dire danger” bit, not whether Texas has a “Make My Day” law, of which I’m unsure (but it sounds right, knowing Texas), nor whether the prosecutor ultimately bears the burden of proof with regard to self-defense (which is correct, so long as the defendant has raised colorable evidence to place the issue in contention).
The laws of most states aren’t entirely consistent on whether their version of self defense uses an objective or subjective standard, though virtually all of them describe it as an objective standard. By objective vs. subjective, I’m talking about the person’s belief that it is necessary to use force to defend himself or herself from imminent harm. An objective standard asks whether the person’s belief was reasonable; i.e., would a hypothetical reasonable person in the person’s shoes think that force was necessary? A subjective standard, by contrast, asks only whether the person’s belief that force was necessary was honest.
I think we can all see the appeal of a subjective standard: after all, what good does an objective standard do? In these sorts of situations, a reasonableness requirement wouldn’t change anyone’s behavior – that’s just not how the limbic system operates. As some dead judge famously remarked, “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” But the big problem with a subjective standard is that it risks an open season on criminals, or near-criminals, or just people who because of cross-cultural (or cross-racial?) differences invoke fear in other people. Think about Goetz, the white man who shot four black youths on the New York subway who perhaps were going to mug him, but perhaps were just making fun of him. So maybe we don’t want to permit rampant vigilanteism.
But even though the self defense standard is objective and looks to the reactions of a hypothetical reasonable person, that necessarily raises the question of whether this reasonable person is a man, a woman, strong, weak, and so forth. Normally, the standard incorporates the person’s gender and physical characteristics. In State v. Warrow, the defendant was permitted to invoke the defense of self defense when she shot an unarmed, drunk man who was threatening her child. Normally, in such a situation, the defense would not be available because the reasonable person doesn’t think that deadly force is necessary to counter a nondeadly threat. But in this case, the court took cognizance of the fact that the victim was a big man, whereas the defendant was a 5’4" woman on crutches.
While Warrow seems well and good, the incorporation of the characteristics of the defendant into the reasonable person against whose conduct we’re measuring the defendant’s, we threaten to collapse the objective standard into a wholly subjective standard. As GaryM brought up, the Battered Women Defense cases start to go down this line. Is the reasonable person a female, much smaller than the aggressor? Is the reasonable person aware of a long history of abuse from this aggressor and attuned to his moods and predilections? Is the reasonable person under the sway of a psychological tendency known as “learned helplessness”? Heck, if we go much further, we’re asking whether the reasonable person is racist and afraid that all African-Americans are threatening him with concealed handguns.
But then again, as Bricker points out, people who subjectively belief that using force was necessary but whose belief we wouldn’t call reasonable are not just left to the wolves and convicted of murder to the same extent as a cold-blooded killer. Usually (but not always – some states have an “all or nothing” self-defense rule), people who kill under the honest but unreasonable belief that using deadly force was necessary to repel a deadly attack can invoke an “imperfect” self-defense doctrine. In these jurisdictions, this mitigates the crime from murder to manslaughter.