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You Can't Use a Prison Shank for Self Defense, 9th Circuit Rules

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on October 20, 2011 6:47 AM

Lenny Urena is probably not the only prisoner who believes being called a "bitch" justifies assaulting the name-caller. But the Ninth Circuit disagrees. The appeals court has struck down Urena's request for a self-defense jury instruction in his prison shanking case.

Urena was incarcerated at a federal prison when another prisoner, Gary Dennis, approached Urena and called him a "bitch."

Soon after, Urena took Dennis by surprise and started attacking him. An altercation ensued. At the end, most of Dennis' injuries were rather superficial. He did require stitches for some shank injuries. Prison officials later found the offending shank on Urena.

Name-calling in prison can spark serious fights. In fact, in 2008 a fatal beating occurred at a federal prison in Chicago after one inmate called another a "snitch." For prison inmates, reputation can be important. If someone calls you a "bitch," it could put you in serious danger if you aren't careful.

At least that's what Urena argued. In fact, he seemed to think it was justifiable self-defense.

Unfortunately for the federal prisoner, it seems that the Ninth Circuit doesn't agree.

Normally name-calling and insults aren't enough to warrant a self-defense claim. Self-defense commonly requires the defendant to be placed in fear of imminent physical harm and the force must be proportional. If someone tries to punch you, you might be justified in punching him, but you probably wouldn't be justified to pull out a gun and shoot him.

And according to the Ninth Circuit, someone calling you an insulting name doesn't justify attacking them with a prison shank.

That's why the appeals court has dismissed Lenny Urena's request for a self-defense jury instruction

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