Bob Marley and Eric Clapton both enjoyed great success with the
song "I Shot the Sheriff", shooting to fame in 1973 for
Bob and in 1974 for Eric, with Bob also writing the piece.
There is an old saying "never bring a knife to a gun
fight", credited to Sean Connery in The Untouchables but
repeated many times since.
Let us consider the song, the saying, and the principles of
self-defence in New South Wales.
From the lyrics we know the character Bob and Eric are singing
about admits he shot the Sheriff, but he vehemently denies shooting
the Deputy. He swears "it was in self-defence", but would
this declaration be enough to keep him out of jail in NSW
We have some background information and we know the character
(we will call him Wyatt Earp) certainly believes that Sheriff John
Brown is against him. The lyrics are:
"Sheriff John Brown always hated me".
Freedom came to Wyatt one day (perhaps he had escaped from
"And I started out of town?"
But then suddenly Wyatt sees Sheriff John Brown. The Sheriff
acts aggressively as from Wyatt's perspective, "he's
aiming to shoot me down".
Wyatt, again readily admits to shooting the Sheriff (that he
"shot, I shot, I shot him down") and notes his
"reflexes had got the better of me" (will action without
thinking undermine self defence?).
Wyatt emphatically denies that he shot the Deputy and
there's an issue raised as to whether the Deputy is even
present at the shooting, with Wyatt asking "where was the
Wyatt knows that "If I am guilty I will pay", but can
his claims of self-defence protect his innocence, here in New South
We look to section 418 of the Crimes Act 1900 which
A person is not criminally responsible for an offence if
the person carries out the conduct constituting the offence in
A person carries out conduct in self-defence if and
only if the person believes the conduct is
to defend himself or herself or another person,
to prevent or terminate the unlawful deprivation of his or
her liberty or the liberty of another person, or
to protect property from unlawful taking, destruction,
damage or interference, or
to prevent criminal trespass to any land or premises or to
remove a person committing any such criminal trespass,
and the conduct is a reasonable response in the
circumstances as he or she perceives them.
This provision is intended to codify the law with respect to
self-defence and we need to remember:
If Wyatt is charged with murder and raises self defence, it is
for the Prosecution to still satisfy the jury beyond reasonable
doubt that the offence has been made out, i.e. the Prosecution must
show he was not acting in self-defence.
There is no onus on Wyatt to prove self defence. Wyatt is
admitting the act of violence and is admitting an intention to harm
The lyrics do not tell us about how Wyatt came to be armed,
however, they do tell us enough to know he had a subjective belief
that the Sheriff had always hated him and that Wyatt could see the
Sheriff aiming to shoot him. Wyatt received no warning and no call
out to assume the position. It is not clear whether Wyatt had his
own gun, whether it could be seen, or if there was a struggle for
control of the Sheriff's gun. But one thing seems clear: the
Sheriff was aiming to shoot him dead.
We need to consider whether self-defence can be made out. Was
the force reasonable or was it excessive?
The Judicial Commission of New South Wales in summary points out
the law recognises the right of a person to act in self defence
from a threatened attack and in a case of murder, the accused can
have the intention of killing or inflicting grievous bodily harm,
or can act with reckless indifference to human life. So Wyatt was
threatened with the gun pointed by the Sheriff and he reacted.
Did Wyatt believe that the shooting of Sheriff John Brown was
necessary in order to defend himself? And would a jury think this
was a reasonable response in the circumstances, as Wyatt perceived
them? What if he had a knife, would that be considered more
As to "you should never bring a knife to a gun
Whilst it may well be that the jury will accept Wyatt's use
of force was proportionate and he can rely on the defence, perhaps
the better message is: bringing a knife (not a
gun) and killing the Sheriff might enhance your prospects of
defending a murder charge with self-defence.
Perhaps the next time you hear the song you will be able to give
more thought to the legal parameters of self-defence in New South
Wales, or not.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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