Self-defense and sudden heat are similar explanations for the killing of another person. The Indiana Supreme Court has held that a self-defense claim requires the fear of death or great bodily harm. The Court has also said that this same fear can be sufficient to establish sudden heat, which is a mitigating factor that can reduce a murder charge. In most cases, this is the jury’s call to make.

If you’re facing a murder charge, it’s important to understand both of these claims and how they can relate to your criminal defense.


Self-defense—which includes the defense of third parties—is a legal justification for an otherwise criminal act. Where self-defense involved the use of deadly force, the elements of the claim are:

  1. you were in a place where you had a right to be;
  2. you didn’t provoke, instigate, or participate willingly in the violence; and
  3. you had a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm.

If you can establish these three elements, then the State has the burden of disproving one of them. If the State can’t disprove any part of your self-defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt, you’re not guilty.

Sudden Heat

Sudden heat, on the other hand, is only available in a murder case. It’s not an affirmative defense, but a mitigating factor that must be proved separately. In order to demonstrate sudden heat so as to reduce a murder charges to voluntary manslaughter, the defendant must show they were experiencing anger, rage, resentment, or terror that was sufficient to obscure the reason of an ordinary person.

In other words, if you’re angered or scared to the point of being incapable of deliberation or premeditation—if you’re reacting emotionally—and as a result of these feelings you kill another person, you may have been acting under sudden heat.

Similar, But Very Different

In a case called Brantley v. State, the Indiana Supreme court actually addressed the similarities between sudden heat and self-defense in a very direct way:

A defendant acts in self-defense when confronted with “real danger of death or great bodily harm, or in such apparent danger as caused him, in good faith, to fear death or great bodily harm. The danger need not be actual, but the belief must be in good faith and the reaction must be reasonable.”

Similarly, sudden heat, which is sufficient to reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter, requires evidence of “anger, rage, sudden resentment, or terror that is sufficient to obscure the reason of an ordinary man.”

If you read these passages fast enough, they sound pretty comparable. What they share in common is that a person has reacted without having time to think. In a case of self-defense, this unconsidered reaction excuses what would otherwise be a crime. In a case of sudden heat, it mitigates the severity of the penalty.

To understand why sudden heat matters, it’s important to understand that the maximum penalty for a murder conviction is 65 years in prison. A murder charge mitigated by a finding of sudden heat, however, is reduced to voluntary manslaughter, which is a Level 2 felony. A Level 2 felony is still a serious charge, but the maximum penalty is only 30 years in prison. That is to say, if you’re on trial for murder and the jury finds sudden heat, this can shave 35 years off your sentence.

Unintended Consequences

It’s not all good news, though, as the sudden heat option seems to have an interesting effect on jurors. The Indiana Supreme Court has recognized that if a jury is presented with two choices—(a) guilty of murder; or (b) not guilty based on self-defense—most jurors will be pulled pretty strongly in one of the two directions.

When a third choice is introduced, however—(a) guilty of murder; (b) not guilty based on self-defense; or (c) guilty of voluntary manslaughter based on sudden heat—the dynamics change. In this situation, it appears that the sudden heat option tends to split the self-defense vote.

This leaves the defense attorney in the unenviable position of having to choose between:

  • requesting a jury instruction that might contribute to his client’s conviction; or
  • fighting to exclude a jury instruction that might save his client 35 years in prison.
Make the Right Call

If you’re facing a murder charge, it’s important to be aware of all your options, and obviously you need to understand the difference between self-defense and sudden heat. You should discuss all of this with your attorney.

Here’s a promise, though—if you plead the 5th and don’t make a statement to the police, you’ll increase the likelihood of having more (and better) options down the line. Don’t talk to the police without an attorney present, even if you haven’t been charged with a crime. If you have any questions about self-defense, sudden heat, or when you should talk to the police, give us a call at 317-632-3642 and remember—always plead the 5th!