What Sally McNeil and Brittany Smith's Murder Cases Teach Us About Self-Defense
The true crime documentary machine continues churning out content, with two new Netflix documentaries highlighting what it means to act in self-defense. "Killer Sally" and "State of Alabama vs. Brittany Smith" dive into the harrowing stories of two women who seemingly acted in self-defense but were still convicted of murder.
Professional bodybuilder Sally McNeil admitted to shooting her husband, Ray, on Valentine's Day, 1995. Sally said that Ray, also a professional bodybuilder, abused her throughout their relationship.
In an interview after her conviction, she described several serious injuries she sustained during their marriage:
"He broke my little toe in Okinawa, Japan, when he threw me out of a bathtub. He broke my nose when he punched me in the face ... he partially tore my rotator cuff."
On the day of the shooting, Sally told police that Ray "slapped her, pushed her down on the floor, and started choking her." She broke away from him, ran to their bedroom, and grabbed a shotgun from the closet. She fired two shots, hitting Ray in the abdomen and jaw.
On Jan. 16, 2018, Brittany Smith shot and killed a man in her home in Stevenson, Alabama. Brittany had agreed to let an acquaintance named Joshua "Todd" Smith sleep on her couch that night but texted her mother around 1 a.m. that things had gone horribly wrong.
"Mom Todd has tried to kill me literally," her text read. "Don't act like anything is wrong ... he will kill me if he knows." She later told police that Todd brutally raped her earlier that night.
Her mother frantically called other family members and Brittany's brother, Chris McCallie, rushed to the house. He was armed.
When he arrived, Chris placed his gun on Brittany's kitchen counter and told Todd to leave. Todd then attacked Chris, putting him in a headlock and punching him repeatedly. Brittany picked up Chris's gun, warning Todd that she would shoot if he didn't stop.
She fired once, but Todd still didn't back down. Then Brittany fired the gun several more times. Todd finally fell to the ground, and Brittany called 911. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Was It Self-Defense?
Both women claimed they acted in self-defense. But they used different legal avenues to combat their murder charges.
Smith's defense team relied on Alabama's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows a person to use deadly force in self-defense or to defend another person in certain circumstances.
In many states, "stand your ground" laws provide immunity from criminal charges if a person's claim is accepted. This differs slightly from a typical claim of self-defense. When a person claims self-defense, it is an "affirmative defense" used at trial. Rather than deny that they committed the crime, the defendant argues that while the allegations are true, they should not be found guilty.
A judge rejected Smith's stand-your-ground claim in 2020, and she eventually received a 20-year sentence for Todd's murder after accepting a plea deal from prosecutors. . However, things might have ended differently had she gone through a trial. Given the circumstances, a jury might have viewed her actions as justified.
At her trial for second-degree murder, McNeil's defense team argued that she acted in self-defense and was a victim of "battered woman syndrome" (now more commonly called "intimate partner violence").
However, proportionality is an important element of self-defense. How a person defends themselves must be proportional to the level of force they face. Prosecutors argued that because Sally was a bodybuilder, she should have relied on her own strength rather than deadly force to protect herself from Ray.
It seems the jury bought this argument. They convicted McNeil of second-degree murder, and the court sentenced her to 19 years to life in prison.
Both cases serve as reminders that there are plenty of situations where a person's actions seem justified but don't quite fit the legal definition of self-defense. This perception can play an enormous role in self-defense cases. Juries face the nearly impossible task of putting themselves in the shoes of someone facing the unthinkable. Sometimes, the results are uncomfortable.
- States That Have Stand Your Ground Laws (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
- What It Means to Act in Self-Defense (FindLaw's "Don't Judge Me" Podcast)
- What Do True-Crime Shows Owe Victims and Survivors? (FindLaw's Law & Daily Life)
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