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Former Cop Gets Life in Firefighter Murder Case: The Limits of Self-Defense

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on June 26, 2009 11:46 AM

A former Rhode Island cop, Nicholas Gianquitti, was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for second-degree murder, and the case may provide an exemplar on the limits of self-defense law.

The tragic case arose, as is unfortunately, too often the case, out of something relatively trivial. In May of 2008, some kids at a neighbor's place accidentally hit a tennis ball into Gianquitti's car (he'd had his issues with neighborhood kids before). Gianquitti cursed at the children, but was confronted by his neighbor, James Pagano, a firefighter.

Then came some heated words, then punches, and finally, the worst possible outcome ... a fatal gunshot. Pagano, the firefighter of 15 years, reportedly ended up lying mortally wounded in a street. Gianquitti never denied shooting Pagano, but claimed he only did so in self-defense, testifying that he only shot Pagano after the latter came up to Gianquitti's house and punched him in the face.

Well, that certainly sounds like self-defense right? Someone gets attacked, then defends themselves? Well, self-defense laws often don't work that way. When someone uses force, particularly in the case of deadly force, laws in most cases have heightened requirements. Generally, people may use deadly force in defense of themselves (or others) if they have a reasonable fear of imminent serious harm or death. Noteably, however, Rhode Island is a state where there is no "duty to retreat" in cases of burglary and breaking and entering, and people who use force in self-defense in such cases are presumed to do so justifiably.

Indeed, in an e-mail to a local news outlet following the conviction, Gianquitti's attorney claimed "We felt that we had a strong self defense case in that Mr. Gianquitti was assaulted in his home". On the other hand, the prosecution had argued that "Pagano was outside the house with his back to Gianquitti when shot", undercutting the self-defense claim. Although the basis may be unclear, the jury in this case clearly didn't buy into the argument that deadly force was warranted under the circumstances.

Some may disagree with the outcome. Some comments on news stories have indicated as much, arguing that Pagano was the instigator and struck Gianquitti in his home. However, as far as the law on self-defense goes, people should keep in mind that there's a big difference between acting out of revenge or wounded pride, and acting out of a true fear for one's life.

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