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Crime III - Actus Reus III

Updated on August 2, 2017

Before the act can be determined to be the cause of death or the principle cause of death, it must be established that the act was the operating cause or the prime cause of death. In R v Smith (1959) two soldiers got into a fight in the barracks and the accused stabbed the other soldier with a bayonet, which in most cases is fatal. It is a lethal weapon when used in the correct or prescribed manner.

The injured soldier was carried to the hospital and while he was being taken to the hospital he was dropped twice. The accused was charged.

During his trial, the accused argued that his act was not the sole cause of the death and the acts of dropping the soldier while he was being carried were intervening acts that had aggravated the injury. The court, in line with the decision in R v Benge (1865) rejected the argument on the grounds that the wound was the operating cause or the principle cause of death.

It is worth comparing the decision in R v Smith (1959) with that of R v Jordan (1956). In both cases the victim was stabbed and there were intervening acts between the stabbing and the deaths that may have exacerbated or aggravated the injury. It is possible to distinguish between both cases in the following manner:- In R v Smith (1959), the injury was so severe that the fact that the defendant was dropped twice would not have made much of a difference because that is how lethal a bayonet really is, whereas in the latter, R v Jordan (1956), the stabbing was not fatal and the victim was on the road to recovery and from all accounts would have recovered but for the actions of those who attended to him in the hospital.

The decision in R v Smith (1959) was reaffirmed in the case of R v Blaue (1975). The accused, stabbed the victim 4 times for refusing him, and the victim was rushed to the hospital where she refused a blood transfusion because she was a Jehovah’s Witness and her religion prevented her from having blood transfusions. At the trial, the defendant argued that her death was not caused by his actions but rather the intervening act of the victim.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument and found him guilty on the basis that it was his act of stabbing that had been the operational cause or the material and substantial cause of death.

It may also be said that, while it is used more in reference to a victim’s physical or mental attributes, that the defendant is bound to take his or her victim as he or she finds them i.e. the thin skull rule, if applicable, would apply.

Similarly, in R v Malcherek (1981) the accused had stabbed his wife. The victim was rushed to a hospital and after being put on life support systems, the doctors after monitoring the patient decided to switch life support off because there was no brain activity.

The accused was charged with murder and at the trial the accused argued that the act of switching life support off was an intervening act and that the act had caused the death of the victim. The court rejected the argument and decided that the accused was guilty. The act of stabbing the victim was the operational cause of death.

In R v Steel (1981) the accused sexually assaulted a woman and thereafter hit her over the head with a stone. The victim was taken to the hospital and was placed on life support but life support was switched off when the doctors realized that there was no brain activity. At the trial, the defendant tried to argue that it was the switching off of the life support systems that had caused the death but the court decided that it was the defendant’s act that was the operational cause of death.

In R v Pagett (1983) the accused was a married man who got into a relationship with the victim a 16-year-old. The victim, who was pregnant at the time, ended the relationship and the estranged ex stormed into her parents’ house, where she was staying, armed with a shotgun and shot the father in the leg before he took the mother and daughter hostage. While they were driving they were spotted by police officers who gave chase and during the chase the accused kicked the girl’s mother out of the car and drove to his flat where he held the girl hostage, still armed with a shotgun.

The police surrounded the flat and while they were negotiating with the accused, they saw someone approach. Because of poor visibility they mistook the person to be the accused and opened fire but it was not the accused but the girl he’d taken hostage. The accused was charged with manslaughter.

The accused argued that it was not his act that had killed the girl but the court rejected the argument and found that it was the accused’s actions that had precipitated death and found him guilty accordingly.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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