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State standards for self-defense come with caveats

Jim Fleming

Soon after shooting and killing 17-year-old Muhammed Rahim on Sunday, Alexander Weiss told police that he had acted in self-defense and out of fear for his safety.

On Wednesday, the Olmsted County Attorney's Office charged Weiss, 25, with second-degree murder, without intent.

A key element in the case will be whether Weiss' fear was sufficient under state law to justify his use of deadly force against Rahim. Legal experts and area criminal defense attorneys say it's not enough that Weiss was scared or vaguely afraid of Rahim. Weiss had to be fearful that he was confronting a threat of death, great bodily harm or crippling injury.

"Great bodily harm is not just any old injury. It's the type of injury you don't come back from, like losing your sight or losing one of your limbs," Rochester defense attorney Michael Walters said. "The level of fear you need to be experiencing in order to be justified is very, very high."

The incident began Sunday as a roadside confrontation between Weiss and Rahim following a two-vehicle accident at the interaction of 31st Street and East River Road Northeast. Rochester police say that Weiss was not injured by Rahim. No punches were thrown. No weapons were involved except the 9 mm pistol Weiss used to shoot Rahim in the chest.


After the collision, an eyewitness says, Rahim got in Weiss' face and dared Weiss to shoot him. Weiss told an officer that after Rahim tried to grab at his gun, he stepped back and shot him in the chest in self-defense.

A couple of legal experts who spoke to the Post Bulletin declined to speak directly about the Weiss case. But one self-defense expert, speaking generally, said that even the apprehension of physical assault may not be enough to justify the use of deadly force.

"If you punch me in the eye and give me a black eye, that's not a crippling injury," said Jim Fleming, an Monticello-based criminal defense attorney. "But if you strike me with sufficient force to fracture the skeletal structure around the eye and I lose my vision, that's a crippling injury."

Another issue pertinent to self-defense claims is whether the force Weiss used was reasonable. Was pulling a trigger, given the situation and level of threat he faced, a reasonable response?

In Minnesota, unlike some states, there is a duty to retreat from a confrontation if it's possible, experts say. Minnesota is a not a Stand-Your-Ground state like Florida where a person can use deadly force without retreating. Police officials have been quick to state that the shooting in Rochester on Sunday is not a George Zimmerman case, a reference to the Florida man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin and was acquitted of all charges under a Stand-Your-Ground statute.

A key difference between the two cases is the obligation Minnesota law imposes on the person making a self-defense claim to attempt to seek a route of retreat. (Minnesota does have a limited stand-your-ground law if you are attacked in your house).

Police report that Weiss at one point went back to his vehicle to get his gun. Could he have barricaded himself inside his car while waiting for the police to arrive? Could he have just walked away from the scene?

"When someone threatens you in public, you need, in order to claim self-defense, to be able to truthfully say that there was no reasonable possibility of retreat," Walters said. "It sounds like duty to retreat is going to be an issue in this case. It sounds like reasonableness is going to be an issue in this case."


Walters also emphasized how important it is as a community to keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions. One thing he has learned as a defense attorney is that the information that comes out in the immediate aftermath of an arrest can be "incomplete."

"There are still so many unknowns," he said.

Ray Schmitz, a retired Olmsted County attorney, said he can recall dealing with four or five self-defense cases during his near-30-year career. Most of the cases involved situations where the victim was in a possession of a weapon, unlike the situation involving Rahim.

While declining to comment on the Weiss case, Schmitz said self-defense cases can be among among the most challenging a county attorney handles. That's partly because of their subjective nature — what is an imminent threat? — and the unpredictability of how a jury might view a set of facts.

Self-defense trials are very fact-driven cases, but they can rest on vague concepts of the law, like the difference between "great bodily harm" and "substantial bodily harm." Juries have been known to deliberate for days in parsing such fine distinctions of the law.

In a couple of cases Schmitz lost, the juries accepted a broader definition of self-defense than he thought applicable. In several cases, Schmitz convened a grand jury to test how the typical man on the street viewed the facts.

"It gives you kind of a layman's perception of what happened. It gives you a feeling for what the jury is ultimately going to do," Schmitz said.

Schmitz said one challenge he didn't have to contend with as county attorney was the prevalence of social media. The Weiss shooting has generated a cascade of social media commentary. People are offering their opinions online — and in some cased forming camps — based on limited public information.


"It's hard to deal with. Then you have to deal with the jurors, who have seen and read so many things on social media that weren't correct," Schmitz said.

Fleming said a self-defense claim turns on several questions: Did the shooter reasonably believe he was exposed to imminent threat? Would a "reasonable person" cast in the same circumstances have acted the same way? And was the use of deadly force a proportional response?

"You can't emphasize enough how much Minnesota law says that in taking someone's life, you need to be afraid of some pretty darn serious injuries," Walters said.

But how a jury sees a case might be different than a legal expert.

"Now you understand why attorneys who are involved in cases like this have sleepless nights," Fleming said. "Because we've got to pick a jury that will be objective enough to listen, but you can't look in their hearts and minds and ever know."

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