When is it self-defense?

The night after she managed to scare off an intruder who had broken into her apartment and snuck into her bedroom, Sarah Braunstein slept with a hammer under her pillow for protection.

"It didn't become a habit," said Braunstein, 27, of Logan Square.

Had the trespasser returned, Braunstein could have hypothetically smacked him with it and not be charged with a crime in Illinois, even if he was unarmed. But if the scenario played out differently--if she'd been attacked in the middle of a street or had Braunstein been a 250-pound man instead of an average-sized woman, a Chicago judge or jury might have ruled against her.

Between Chicago's alarmingly high homicide rates this summer and the continued developments in the high-profile case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen shot to death by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, eyes continue to turn to Illinois' own self-defense laws.

In 2005, Florida became the first state to enact a controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows the justification of deadly force if a person is gravely threatened. A bill that would have introduced a version of that law in Illinois failed in the state legislature in February, leaving the state with a law where the difference between murder and justifiable homicide can be "very situational," said criminal defense attorney John Callahan of the Norris & Callahan law firm.

"There's a very fine line, and it often comes down to common sense," Callahan said.

Illinois law once included a rule that said victims had a duty to retreat from an attacker, but is now one of 24 states with expansive definitions of self-defense that doesn't require fleeing before fighting back.

"For instance, if a person is standing in front of your office, holding a knife and says you can't come in or he'll stab you, you could theoretically shoot them," said Jerry Norton, a professor of law at Loyola University.

Without a Stand Your Ground provision, however, a Chicagoan can resist with deadly force only if they are being confronted with equal deadly force.

"It means that if someone is hitting you with fists, you can't stab or shoot them," Callahan said. "In the (Trayvon) Martin case, George Zimmerman would be more difficult to represent in Illinois than Florida."

But there are no such requirements, according to Callahan, if a person is trying to protect themselves inside one's home--part of the so-called Castle Doctrine. Section 7-2 of Illinois' law states that the use of force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm is justified if a burglar enters an individual's home in "a violent, riotous, or tumultuous manner and he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent an assault" on themselves or others. The Castle Doctrine also permits deadly force if "he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent the commission of a felony in the dwelling."

In other words, you can shoot or stab someone that breaks in to your home if you think that person will commit a felony or assault.

But beyond the letter of the law, charging crimes in self-defense scenarios can be very situational, said Ed Kress, a self-defense teacher at Degerberg Academy in Lincoln Square.

"Women could likely get away with a lot more," Kress said. "If they were able to use a gun to stop a person from attacking them, they will probably be looked on more favorably than someone like me. The same thing if a person grabs a child, then the mother would be able to do damage to them."

Judges and juries also look at who started the aggression, Callahan said.

"If it's a person who started a bar fight and escalated it and then ends up hurting someone in self-defense, they might have a problem."

Self-defense slayings are actually somewhat rare in Illinois.

According to most recent FBI records, there were zero justifiable homicides in Chicago in 2010 and only two from 2008 to 2010. Meanwhile, justifiable homicides nationwide nearly doubled in the 2000s from 176 in 2000 to 326 cases by decades end, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of crime statistics from all 50 states, with the biggest increase coming from states with Stand Your Ground provisions.

John Hylant said he's only been in one self-defense scenario in Chicago: He was punched and robbed of his phone in an incident four years ago while waiting for a friend on Lincoln Avenue--but he said he'd wouldn't have used a weapon against the assailant if he had a weapon.

"I think you should only use it only when your life is threatened," said Hylant, 23, an accounting executive in River North. "I think everyone has the right to bear arms, but there should be restrictions."

Hylant said he wished Illinois allowed concealed weapons because they would prevent potential attacks.

"People would be less likely to try something if they knew you could have a gun," Hylant said.

Columbia college student Andrea Barr, 20, said she'd shoot someone if her life felt endangered, but she'd defend herself with a non-lethal weapon first.

"I think the last resort is that if I have a gun and I'm in an emergency situation and myself or friends are threatened, I'd take matters into my own hands," Barr said. "There's certain situations where you can't rely on the police to protect you from everything."

Braunstein said she favors more gun control, not less.

"There are other forms of self-defense are more applicable in many situations and probably wouldn't result in the loss of lives."

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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