Every now and then a bit of sensational reporting will see the light of day, usually with a click-baitey headline intended to rouse emotions and outrage, that serves to propagate a complete misrepresentation of what happened during the aftermath of a shooting in private defence.
Having lived through one such incident myself, and knowing many others who have done the same, I would like to shed a little light on the matter and expose the truth of what really happens. Considering that I count a rather large number of extremely competent law enforcement officers among my friends, I am sure they will be along shortly to correct any mistakes in this article.
Also, disclaimer: this is merely a brief overview of what you can expect to deal with, and it does not in any way replace legal advice from qualified counsel. Please don’t use this for something it is not intended for, and seek proper legal advice from the correct channels.
What happens immediately after a defensive shooting?
OK, so the worst has happened and you have shot somebody in order to stop a potentially lethal unlawful attack on either yourself or a third party. Now what? It goes without saying that the immediate aftermath of such an event will be chaotic: you will be experiencing a number of physiological and psychological effects that will severely encumber your ability to focus, think, and perform even the most basic of tasks. You may even be injured and in pain.
Once the danger has passed, you have to perform a series of tasks of vital importance, preferably in the following order:
- Immediately and without delay call for an ambulance or medical assistance: both for yourself, the shot perpetrator, and whomever else may be injured. It helps to have several emergency service telephone numbers saved on your cellular telephone, because you may have to call more than one in order to be successful.
- Phone 10111. Tell the operator there has been an emergency involving a shooting, who you are, and where you are.
- Phone your lawyer. If you do not already have one, find a competent and experienced defence attorney and book an appointment with them sooner rather than later. It makes things much easier if you are already on their books before you need them.
While you wait for assistance to arrive, you need to ensure to the best of your ability that the scene remains as sterile as possible. Cartridge casings, the perpetrator’s weapon, or any other pieces of evidence can go missing. Do not touch or move anything unless you have good reason to do so! Make sure you keep unauthorised people out of the scene as much as is practical until the authorities arrive. Taking photographs of the evidence on your cellphone is generally not a bad idea either.
Dealing with the SAPS
The police will take control of the scene immediately upon their arrival: fully cooperate with them in this regard. You will see crime scene photographers, medical and/or mortuary personnel, and you will be dusted for powder residue by a forensics person.
At some point, you will be asked to identify yourself to the investigating officer (IO).
The IO is trying to piece together exactly what has happened, and will likely ask you to briefly explain the sequence of events. They do not as yet know who the good guy(s) and bad guy(s) are, and they will take anyone into custody whom they are unsure about.
Your level of cooperation may be key to determining whether or not you will be placed under arrest, but you also do not want to say or do anything that accidentally and unintentionally incriminates yourself. It will usually suffice to tell the IO something along these lines: “That person (the aggressor) attacked myself/that person (the innocent party) with that weapon (point it out) and I shot the aggressor in order to stop the attack.” Do not go into any unnecessary detail beyond this.
It is highly important that you do not lie in any way, shape, or form to the IO.
It is also highly recommended that you do not give any statements on the scene: you are going to be very traumatized and in no position to do so without major risk of involuntarily incriminating yourself. Rather inform the IO that they will have your full cooperation once you have regained your wits and composure, and you will submit a statement in full through your legal counsel within 48 hours.
Do not be coerced into giving a statement under duress: it is vastly preferable to rather be arrested as opposed to trying to correct incriminating statements you gave police because you were not fit and ready to do so. Professional and ethical police officers would in any case not expect this from you in the first place.
If you are asked to hand over your licenced firearm in order for it to be taken for ballistic testing, cooperate with this request in full. You will likely receive no paperwork in return, but do not worry about it now.
At this point, depending on the nature of the incident and the IO’s perception thereof, you may or may not be placed under arrest. If you are taken into custody: it is not the end of the world. You are placed under arrest for the purpose of securing your appearance in court, and it does not mean you are necessarily guilty of anything or that you will be prosecuted. As unpleasant as it may be, be mentally prepared to deal with it.
The Murder Docket
The IO will open a docket as part of the investigation into the incident. In the event that the assailant is deceased due to his wounds, the docket may be referred to as either a “Murder” or an “Inquest” docket. All the same evidence, from witness statements to ballistic reports, get put in the docket regardless of what it is called.
It does not really matter what the docket is called. As a prosecutor friend of mine once put it: “A docket is a docket is a docket.”
The mere fact that a murder docket has been opened does not remotely imply that the person of interest is being accused of murder, is being charged with murder, or is even being investigated for murder.
This is a matter that is frequently blown out of proportion by journalists, as can be seen from the sensational headline linked at the beginning of this piece.
Whether or not the matter is treated as an inquest, be it formal or informal, or a murder is up to the NPA to decide.
Until then (and even after then) it would help everybody to calm down somewhat instead of panicking unnecessarily about nonsense.
EDIT PS: From a very experienced police officer who was kind enough to submit this additional commentary: “One small addition I would have made in the article…if a firearm, magazine, etc. is seized, it will be sealed in a plastic exhibit bag in your presence. The bag has a unique serial number. I’d also add to seriously recommend DO NOT try and tamper/ alter the scene as it is at termination of action. DO NOT believe the shit about dragging bodies in/out/placing knives and whatever. We are not stupid. We’ve seen way more crime scenes than the average citizen to know what has been ‘created’.”