This Tennessee Supreme Court decision addressed one of the most controversial homicide cases of the nineteenth century. The case involved a conflict between two men–Grainger and Broach–who had been drinking at a tavern. The two parted on seemingly good terms, but as Grainger rode home by horseback, Broach overtook him and violently struck him on the breast. The frightened Grainger rode to a neighbor’s house, where he dismounted and sought asylum. Shouting for help, Grainger moved toward the house as Broach followed. Armed with a rifle, Grainger warned Broach that he would shoot him if he came closer. When Broach continued to advance, Grainger killed his assailant and was subsequently convicted of murder.
On appeal, Tennessee Supreme Court Judge John Catron overturned Grainger’s conviction, concluding that no malice accompanied the defendant’s actions. Catron characterized Grainger’s behavior as cowardly and timid, but argued that he believed he was alone and in imminent danger; for these reasons, Catron deemed the homicide excusable. Yet Catron carelessly omitted an important phrase from the holding in the case. “If the jury had believed that Grainger was in danger of great bodily harm from Broach, or thought himself so,” Catron concluded, “then the killing would have been in self-defense.” (1) Had Catron included the words “upon sufficient grounds” after “thought himself so,” the opinion would never have stirred the controversy that surrounded the subsequent interpretation of the ruling.
In the Grainger’s case, the grounds for his fears were clearly sufficient, which probably explained why Judge Catron omitted this language. Two later Tennessee Supreme Court rulings confirmed that Catron had not intended to expand the definition of self-defense by omitting the requirement of sufficient grounds. Nevertheless, many lawyers and legal authorities literally interpreted Grainger and ignored the court’s subsequent interpretation of the case. Attorneys especially interpreted Catron’s opinion to mean that legal excuse lay within the reach of killers who merely believed themselves in danger. Across the state, lawyers invoked the principle of self-defense to excuse murderous acts and cited Grainger as precedent.
Nearly three decades after the ruling, the Tennessee Supreme Court definitively declared this literal interpretation of the law a corruption of the original opinion. In Rippy v. State (1858), Judge Robert L. Caruthers succinctly restated the rule of self-defense in Tennessee. “To excuse a homicide, the danger of life, or great bodily injury, must either be real, or honestly believed to be so at the time, and upon sufficient grounds.” (2) Writing of Grainger, Judge Caruthers observed, “No case has been more perverted and misapplied by advocates and juries.” (3)