State v. Abbott
36 N.J. 63, 174 A.2d 881 (1961)

  • Abbott got into an argument with his neighbors (the Scaranos) about repaving a driveway. At first, the fight was between Abbott and one Scarano, but then two other Scaranos joined in.
  • There was some disagreement about what exactly happened, but there was a hatchet, carving knife, and a large fork involved. Three members of the Scarano family ended up in the hospital with hatchet wounds.
    • Abbott claimed that the Scaranos were the aggressors (they brought the hatchet), and that his actions were justified as self-defense.
  • The Trial Court found Abbott guilty of assault and battery against the first Scaranos, but innocent of assaulting the other two. He appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that Abbott’s actions against the other two were justified as self-defense.
    • However, the Court found that Abbott was not justified in wounding the first Scarano because he could have retreated.
  • The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed.
    • The New Jersey Supreme Court looked to the Model Penal Code §3.40(2)(b)(ii) and found that the issue of retreat only arises if the defendant resorts to deadly force. In this case Abbott only wounded his attackers.
    • The Court also found that §3.40(2)(b)(ii) says that retreat is only required when the defendant has knowledge that he can avoid using force with complete safety by retreating.
      • In this case, it was reasonable for Abbott to believe that if he tried to flee, his attackers would come after him (they knew where he lived), and so retreat was not really an option.
  • Under the old English common-law, self-defense was only justified if there was no option to retreat. You literally had to have your back up against the wall.
    • However America jurisprudence significantly lowered the requirement to retreat because “American values” prevented the law from requiring what amounted to cowardice.
      • The no retreat rule is sometimes known as the True Man Doctrine.