Han Shot First: Legal Lessons from Star Wars

All Star Wars fans worth their mettle are familiar with the controversy created by George Lucas’ tinkering with the shootout between Han Solo and the bounty hunter Greedo in the Mos Eisley cantina in the first Star Wars movie.

In the original version, Greedo confronted Han Solo to try to capture him to take him to Jabba the Hutt to collect on a bounty. Han preemptively shot Greedo and exited the cantina with a swagger, leaving the dead and smoking Rodian lying on the table:

Greedo: “Going somewhere, Solo?”
Han: “Yes, Greedo, as a matter of fact I was just going to see your boss. Tell Jabba that I’ve got his money.”
Greedo: “It’s too late, you should have paid him when you had the chance. Jabba’s put a price on your head so large every bounty hunter in the galaxy will be looking for you. I’m lucky I found you first.”
Han: “Yeah, but this time I’ve got the money.”
Greedo: “If you give it to me, I might forget I found you.”
Han: “I don’t have it with me. Tell Jabba–“
Greedo: “Jabba’s through with you. He has no time for smugglers who drop their shipments at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser.”
Han: “Even I get boarded sometimes. Do you think I had a choice?”
Greedo: “You can tell that to Jabba. He may only take your ship.”
Han: “Over my dead body.”
Greedy: “That’s the idea. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
Han: “Yes, I’ll bet you have.” At which point, Han shoots.

In the Special Edition, George Lucas changed the scene so Han didn’t fire until after Greedo had gotten off a shot. Mr. Lucas explained his actions in a recent interview with the Washington Post:

“Han Solo was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say, ‘Should he be a cold-blooded killer?’ … Because I was thinking mythologically — should he be a cowboy, should he be John Wayne? And I said, ‘Yeah, he should be John Wayne.’ And when you’re John Wayne, you don’t shoot people [first] — you let them have the first shot. It’s a mythological reality that we hope our society pays attention to.”

Most Star Wars fans were not pleased with the change, and “Han Shot First” has since become the basis of a number of creative memes. Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and George Lucas have all gotten involved:

 

With Star Wars coming out in theaters tonight, we thought it an appropriate time to analyze whether, under the law, Han Solo would be justified in preemptively shooting Greedo.

As a general rule, using force that threatens or results in serious bodily injury or death is a valid defense to the tort of battery (which includes deadly force) if it is reasonably necessary to avoid serious bodily injury or death to oneself (self-defense) or others (defense of others).

There are separate rules in criminal law. Self-defense that results in the taking of a life is governed by NRS 200.200:

If a person kills another in self-defense, it must appear that:
1.  The danger was so urgent and pressing that, in order to save the person’s own life, or to prevent the person from receiving great bodily harm, the killing of the other was absolutely necessary; and
2.  The person killed was the assailant, or that the slayer had really, and in good faith, endeavored to decline any further struggle before the mortal blow was given.

Some states require a person in danger to try to retreat before using deadly force in self defense, but that is not the law in Nevada:

a person, who is not the original aggressor, has no duty to retreat before using deadly force, if a reasonable person in the position of the non-aggressor would believe that his assailant is about to kill him or cause him serious bodily harm.

Culverson v. State, 106 Nev. 484, 489, 797 P.2d 238, 240–41 (1990).

Although Han Solo was in a different city (Mos Eisley) on a different planet (Tatooine) in a different galaxy a long time ago, and therefore subject to different laws, if he were arrested for murder and tried under the laws of Nevada, his actions would be justified only if the urgency of the danger made killing Greedo absolutely necessary to prevent Han’s serious bodily injury or death.

We don’t really know much about Greedo’s past, so we don’t know how likely he was to really kill Han, but based on the dialogue, Greedo had no compunctions about using Han’s “dead body” to collect the bounty. These threats are especially alarming when spoken with a blaster pointed at Han Solo’s head.

Although we have to infer Greedo’s intent from his actions and words, we know that Jabba had no intention of keeping Han alive. When Boba Fett turned Han over to Jabba, the Hutt left him frozen in carbonite for an indeterminate amount of time (but long enough for Lando to infiltrate Jabba’s palace).

Then the same day a disguised Leia freed Han from the carbonite, Jabba loaded Han on his sail barge and took him to the Great Pit of Carkoon where Jabba tried to feed him to the mighty Sarlacc, where, according to C-3PO as he translated Jabba’s pronouncement, “In its belly, you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a…thousand years.”

That definitely qualifies as serious bodily harm or death, though killing Greedo to avoid it definitely would not meet the urgency requirement of Nevada’s self-defense statute. But shooting Greedo to avoid getting hit by the blaster pointed at his head while death threats were being made certainly would.

Han shot first, and in Nevada anyway, he would probably be justified in doing so.

* Art in featured image by Stefano Bernardi.

 

Zachariah B. Parry is an attorney and founding partner at the law firm Parry & Pfau and is an adjunct professor who teaches torts, contracts, and Nevada practice and procedure for UNLV’s paralegal program. He can be reached at 702-912-4451 or zach@p2lawyers.com.