Let's say someone has been sentenced to death and is about to be killed by lethal injection. While they are being brought into the execution room, they manage to escape the grip of the prison guards and try to escape. A short fight ensues during which a guard gets killed before the prisoner gets tazed and secured to the floor.

Was that killing legal? Is violence only considered self defense if it was used to protect oneself from illegal harm and not if that harm was mandated by justice? Do you have to accept death if you are sentenced to death or can you defend your life?

What if it later turns out, that you were wrongfully convicted or the execution would have been illegal due to some technicality: Can the killing of the prison guard be considered self defense now?

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    What "illegal harm" would the guard do? He would be just doing his job.
    – Greendrake
    Jan 26, 2019 at 15:52
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    Exactly: The execution is legal, but it is still a killing. Is self defense against that killing legal? Jan 26, 2019 at 15:55
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    Self defence is only allowed against unlawful threat. In your scenario the "threat" from the guard could not be more lawful.
    – Greendrake
    Jan 26, 2019 at 16:04
  • What if due to some technicality the execution actually is illegal? The guard is still only doing his job, but that does not change the fact that the prisoner would be killed illegaly if he doesn't defend himself. Jan 26, 2019 at 16:06
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    They don't usually bring guns into prisons because prisoners might get a hold of them. Also: They have to execute prisoners at exactly the right time because a stay of execution might come every time. That is why they revive prisoners that try to kill themselves hours before the scheduled execution or even disinfect needles in case the execution has to be aborted. Jan 26, 2019 at 20:27

2 Answers 2


I assume this took place in Washington state. There are a number of self-defense provisions in Washington law. The first, RCW 9A.16.110, is primarily about reimbursements for prosecutions of acts of self-defense, but includes an applicable limit on prosecution:

No person in the state shall be placed in legal jeopardy of any kind whatsoever for protecting by any reasonable means necessary, himself or herself, his or her family, or his or her real or personal property, or for coming to the aid of another who is in imminent danger of or the victim of assault, robbery, kidnapping, arson, burglary, rape, murder, or any other violent crime as defined in RCW 9.94A.030.

This provision is relevant, since executing a prisoner on death row is not a crime (the state Supreme Court recently struck down the death penalty, so I assume this took place before that ruling).

RCW 9A.16.020 states the more classic law on justified use of force, saying

The use, attempt, or offer to use force upon or toward the person of another is not unlawful in the following cases:...(3) Whenever used by a party about to be injured, or by another lawfully aiding him or her, in preventing or attempting to prevent an offense against his or her person, or a malicious trespass, or other malicious interference with real or personal property lawfully in his or her possession, in case the force is not more than is necessary;

Statutory law does not define offense against his or her person. Grabbing a person and strapping them down for some harmful purpose would normally constitute battery under the common law, but in this instance it is privileged, so it is not an offense against the person).

RCW 9A.16.030 says that

Homicide is excusable when committed by accident or misfortune in doing any lawful act by lawful means, without criminal negligence, or without any unlawful intent.

The person is under court order to be executed, and it is not lawful to resist that order. The guard, however, RCW 9A.16.040, may use deadly force pursuant to the legal mandate to carry out the court orde ((1)(b)"to overcome actual resistance to the execution of the legal process, mandate, or order of a court or officer, or in the discharge of a legal duty").

  • RCW 9A 16.010 seems to have a loop hole that the convicted, or his family, could claim self defense for protecting him (because the long list of crimes seems only to apply to "coming to the aid of another"). I guess this isn't intended. We'd have to look at what "reasonable means necessary" means in this situation.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 26, 2019 at 22:53

Do you have to accept death if you are sentenced to death or can you defend your life?

At this point the legal system has already decided you are going to die. I'm not quite sure what good it would do to worry about whether anything you do is legal. It's not like they can execute you twice.

In the 1998 case State v. Hobson, the Wisconson Supreme Court decided that it was illegal to resist an unlawful arrest. Footnote 19 sheds some light on what the law was like in other states at that time:

Eleven states have judicially abrogated the common law right to use physical force to resist an arrest which is unlawful but which does not utilize unreasonable force. See Miller v. State, 462 P.2d 421, 427 (Alaska 1969); State v. Hatton, 568 P.2d 1040, 1046 (Ariz. 1977); State v. Richardson, 511 P.2d 263, 268 (Idaho 1973); State v. Thomas, 262 N.W.2d 607, 610-11 (Iowa 1978); State v. Austin, 381 A.2d 652, 655 (Me. 1978); In re Welfare of Burns, 284 N.W.2d 359, 360 (Minn. 1979); State v. Nunes, 546 S.W.2d 759, 762 (Mo. Ct. App. 1977); State v. Koonce, 214 A.2d 428, 436 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1965); State v. Doe, 583 P.2d 473, aff'd in part, rev'd in part, 583 P.2d 464, 467 (N.M. 1978); State v. Peters, 450 A.2d 332, 335 (Vt. 1982); State v. Valentine, 935 P.2d 1294, 1304 (Wash. 1997).

Seventeen other states have signaled their agreement by legislatively abrogating the common law defense. See Ala. Code § 13A-3-28 (1994); Ark. Code Ann. § 5-2-612 (Michie 1993); Cal. Penal Code § 834a (West 1985); Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-8-103 (2) (1990); Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-23 (1985); Del. Code Ann. tit. 11 § 464(d) (1995); Fla. Stat. Ann. § 776.051(1) (West 1992); Ill. Ann. Stat. ch. 720, para. 5/7-7 (Smith-Hurd 1993); Mont. Code Ann. 45-3-108 (1995); Neb. Rev. Stat. § 28-1409(2) (1995); N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 594:5 (1986); N.Y. Penal Law § 35.27 (McKinney 1987); Or. Rev. Stat. § 161.260 (1990); 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 505(b)(1)(i) (1983); R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-7-10 (1994); S.D. Codified Laws Ann. § 22-11-5 (1988); Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 9.31(b)(2), § 38.03 (West 1994)

The situation described is at least similar to resisting an unlawful arrest, even if it isn't identical. And some of the reasoning used is similar. The Wisconsin Supreme Court cited People v. Curtis, 450 P.2d 33, 36 (Cal. 1969):

In a day when police are armed with lethal and chemical weapons, and possess scientific communication and detection devices readily available for use, it has become highly unlikely that a suspect, using reasonable force, can escape from or effectively deter an arrest, whether lawful or unlawful. His accomplishment is generally limited to temporary evasion, merely rendering the officer's task more difficult or prolonged.

Similarly, in your scenario, the guards are going to execute the person whether or not he resists, and the only thing resisting will accomplish is to kill the guard before he himself is killed. It's likely not reasonable to expect that he would be able to escape the prison.

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    It might not prevent someone from being executed, but I would be willing to do basically everything if it meant I could live 30 minutes longer. Jan 26, 2019 at 20:43
  • It might be a different thing. Unlawful arrests are not permanent, as they will eventually get resolved, a unlawful execution is very much permanent. Jan 26, 2019 at 20:48
  • Your last point complicates the question, by claiming that the execution was unlawful. Nothing in your OP suggests that it was.
    – user6726
    Jan 26, 2019 at 20:52
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    The convict would likely have made that argument, but let's say no one believed him, even though he was right. He is about to be unlawfully executed, everyone thinks he is guilty, only he knows that he is not. The only way to prevent (or delay) the killing of an innocent man is to injure a prison guard. He miraculously gets a stay of execution, the missing piece of evidence turns up and he is proven to be innocent. Will he now get punished for saving his own life from an unlawful killing? Jan 26, 2019 at 21:41
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    It's not like they can execute you twice I'd argue to the contrary, given the People v. Curtis statement essentially makes the argument that in resisting arrest in this day and age, one has so much to lose, and so little to gain. However, in case of executions, the incentives are nearly perfectly flipped. Even though the odds of successfully evading death are small, one has nothing to lose, and in the Hail Mary attempt absolutely everything to gain. Jul 28, 2020 at 16:59

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