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A lawyer explains the Laremy Tunsil assault case

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Hugh Freeze claims that his star lineman was simply defending his mother when he punched his stepdad last week. To find out how the legal system typically handles this kind of incident, we got on the phone with an Ole Miss law professor.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Laremy Tunsil was arrested last Friday for assaulting his stepdad, there's been a lot of moral discourse over what he should or shouldn't be able to do in defense of his mother. What's been largely absent from the conversation is what the law does or doesn't allow him to do in defense of his mother. So to get a sense of how the legal system usually handles this type of case, we spoke with Ronald Rychlak, an Ole Miss law professor and the Faculty Athletics Representative.

We're still waiting on the official police report to provide more details, but here's a quick refresher on what we know about the incident:

1. Tunsil turned himself in last Friday and was charged with a domestic violence misdemeanor after allegedly assaulting his stepdad, Lindsey Miller.

2. Hugh Freeze claimed in a statement that Tunsil was acting in defense of his mother. An unnamed source told ESPN that Miller pushed Tunsil's mother and that Tunsil responded by punching him.

3. Miller has denied that account, telling The Clarion-Ledger that he did not push his wife, but that Tunsil instigated an argument and then assaulted him. Miller has pressed charges against Tunsil.

To be clear, Professor Rychlak is not privy to any inside information on this case, and is speaking generally about how the law deals with this sort of incident.

Tunsil is allowed by law to defend his mother

Just as any person has the right to use self-defense to fend off an aggressor, any third party can defend another person from being attacked.

"In most circumstances," Rychlak explained, "a third party can step in and come to your defense."

There is a stipulation, though: the law says there has to be a special relationship between the person who steps in and the original person who was being attacked. Fortunately for Tunsil, he's covered.

"Certainly a son-mother would satisfy any requirement there," Rychlak said.

... but only to an extent

That doesn't mean you can go beat the hell out of somebody just because they pushed your mom.

"You're allowed to use the amount of force that's being used against you," explained Rychlak. "Whether it's self-defense or defense of another, once the original person who was being attacked (or the person that stepped in to defend them) gains the upper hand and stops the attack, they're supposed to stop too. The original victim cannot proceed to pummel the original attacker."

That's where Tunsil's case gets tricky. The unnamed source in ESPN's report simply said that "Laremy punched [Miller]," but Miller told The Clarion-Ledger that Tunsil punched him six or seven times. So if it could be proven that Tunsil indeed threw that many punches, does that mean he used excessive force?

"You can't at all assume that," said Rychlak. "It's highly possible that the stepdad was fighting back for the first five punches and then stopped after the sixth."

It likely comes down to "he said, she said"

According to Rychlak, third-party defense cases are fairly common. For instance, two guys might get into a fight over a girl and then one or both may claim to be defending her.

"Sometimes that's pretty clearly the case and sometimes it's clear that it isn't the case, that it was made up later. It can be a long process to get the facts clear. ... The biggest problem here is figuring out who was truly the aggressor, who started it and why it happened. All of those things are kind of hard to get to the bottom of and they're usually conflicting accounts."

When cases like these go to trial -- which Rychlak says they often don't  -- the verdict typically comes down to who is the more credible party.

Witnesses are key

The only confirmed witness we have is Tunsil's mother, who we assume will back up her son's account. Two of Miller's sons were listed on the restraining order requested by Miller against Tunsil, but there's no clear indication that they were on hand for the incident.

While Rychlak says more witnesses are usually an advantage, "the courts always have to assess the credibility when it's a family relationship between the party and the witness."

People will assuredly lie to protect their family, which inherently throws doubt on any testimony from Tunsil's mom or Miller's sons, if they were present.

So when it comes to witnesses, "it's not strictly a numbers game."

So how does all of this turn out?

That of course depends on the details of the police report and the perceived credibility of the parties involved. But as the defendant, Tunsil has the inherent advantage in a case that's heavy on testimony and light on facts.

"The prosecution always has the burden of proof, " said Rychlak. "When accusations are made, they have to be proven by the party that made them."

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: if the court believes that either Miller was posing no danger to his wife (remember, he claims he never pushed her) or that Tunsil used excessive force while defending her, the charges will stick. If not, they'll be dropped. The third option, of course, is that Tunsil pleads to a lesser charge and all of this goes away quietly.