January 2013 - Pg 13-Attorney Question
Most people (and thus most jurors) have a natural, visceral, extremely negative reaction to the thought of being cut with a knife. Some say this is because we have all been cut, or have cut ourselves, at some time in our lives, whereas most of us have never experienced being shot, and thus have no memories of pain associated with being shot. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his must-read work, ON KILLING, discusses the fact that, while military rifles have been equipped with bayonets for the past 200 years, documented cases of American and European (as opposed to Asian) soldiers actually bayonetting a human being, although an enemy one, are extremely rare, presumably due to the strong aversion most people in our culture have for cutting or stabbing another person. In fact, when American soldiers have gotten within bayonet range of an enemy, they have often used their rifles to butt-stroke the enemy, rather than bayonetting him. Most people in this country are not shocked by the idea of using a gun in self defense, whereas the idea of stabbing or slashing someone in self defense is shocking and rare. As a society, we tend to associate the use of knives with gang members, street criminals, assassins, and people from other “un-American” cultures.
Indeed, in all the cases I’ve worked in where a knife has been used (including a high-profile one in front of the White House and one that went to trial six weeks ago), the knife has always been used by the criminal, not the good guy. Knives simply have a bad connotation that will need to be overcome in any case of legitimate self defense.
When teaching police classes, I often comment on the growing practice of officers carrying lock-blade or assisted-opening knives. There are, in fact, even some self-defense knives that are specifically marketed to police, like the Ka-Bar angled-blade TDI model, meant to be carried behind one’s duty belt on one's weak side, for use when defending one’s holstered handgun against a grab attempt on one’s strong side. Without a doubt an attempted gun grab is a deadly attack, and I’ve carried a TDI myself when on uniformed patrol, but an officer who winds up using one may find himself with a high hurdle to jump, trying to explain to a jury why it was appropriate for him to slash the attacker’s arm to the bone, then eviscerate him in self defense.
American juries just aren’t used to such methods, except when employed by psychopaths. And very few police departments give their officers knife training, or have a written knife policy, like their firearms policy. So the knife-wielding officer will likely be out on his own limb, alone. Again, just imagine the public response to the headline, “Police Officer Stabs Attacker to Death,” compared to “Police Officer Shoots, Kills Attacker.”
Because of my feelings on this subject, while I routinely carry a fair-sized Cold Steel, tanto-bladed, serrated Voyager knife in my pocket, when I go out on uniform patrol with the Sheriff’s Department I switch out the Voyager for a S&W Rescue knife. It has a blade of about the same cutting efficiency, but also incorporates a seat belt cutter and a window punch, for breaking a car window in a rescue attempt. If I should ever have to use the knife in self defense, I’d rather have the jury deliberating on the S&W name, associated with police handguns for over a century, and the obvious “rescue” features of my knife, rather than the more sensational-sounding Cold Steel, good as their products may be.
For the same reason, I would recommend that ACLDN members not carry knives such as those with hooked, scimitar-like blades that are clearly intended only for cutting human flesh, or the current breed of “assisted opening” knives that will, to an average juror, be indistinguishable from an illegal and criminally-associated switchblade. Much better for the average individual would be a working-type lock-blade knife that is easily-enough opened (with practice), but can be explained to a jury as having been used, other than for self defense in this one horrific incident, for such mundane tasks as opening packages, cutting string, sharpening the occasional pencil, and cutting one’s hoagie in half. While it can be argued that legitimate self defense is legitimate self defense whether performed with a paring knife, a serrated-blade Rambo knife, a meat cleaver, or a machete, as an attorney I’d much rather take the paring knife case than any of the other three.
Hopefully, none of our members, or their attorneys, will ever have to put my theories to the test.