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Crime II - Actus Reus II

Updated on July 31, 2017

In R v White (1910) the accused poisoned his mother’s drink with the hope of killing her but before the poison could take affect the mother suffered a heart-attack and died as a result. The accused was charged in court and he was without doubt blameworthy because his act was malicious but the fact remained that it was not his act that had killed her.

The court determined that the question that was to be asked was would the mother have died but for the defendant’s actions? The test or the “but for” test here is similar to the “but for” test in tort i.e. the question that has to be asked is whether the plaintiff would have died or suffered serious injury or grievous bodily harm “but for” the defendant’s action. The court acquitted the accused of murder but he was found guilty instead of attempted murder.

An accused will only be guilty of murder if the act caused the death of another. In R v Jordan (1956) the accused stabbed a man and the victim was rushed to the hospital. The victim was given the proper medical treatment but he died almost a week later but not from the wounds that he had sustained but rather from the treatment itself which resulted in another illness and he died as a result of complications arising from the illness. The accused was charged but was found to be not guilty of murder.

It is not enough to merely establish that it was the defendant’s actions that ultimately led to the death of the victim. The following criteria must also be satisfied: -

1) The accused was culpable or blameworthy

2) The victim would not have died but for the act of the accused and

3) There were no other intervening acts in between or acts that precipitated the death or caused the death when in fact death would not have been the result of the defendant’s actions.

Despite the fact that it may be obvious to everyone that the defendant intended to kill the victim, this can be inferred from the act, the defendant is given the benefit of the doubt. That does not mean that he or she will not be imprisoned but the sentence would be lesser or not so severe and in some cases or instances, depending on where the defendant is tried, it may make the difference between a long prison sentence and being sent to the gallows.

In R v Adams (1957) the defendant a doctor was charged with murder. According to the facts of the case the doctor administered lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients and those drugs shortened the life expectancy of the patients but it was done at the request of the patients.

The doctor was charged with murder but the court acquitted him of the offence and despite the fact that being a doctor was not in itself a defense, being a doctor does not exempt an accused of murder, the court based its decision on the fact that a doctor is entitled to do all that he or she can to ease the pain and suffering of his or her patients, even if it means reducing or shortening the life of the patient.

The above decision also has to be looked at in light of euthanasia or physician assisted suicide in cases of terminally ill patients. In certain countries: - Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Taiwan and in certain states in the United States, euthanasia is legal but it depends on the circumstances of the case or the condition of the patient.

Would it make a difference if the patient bequeaths the doctor a Rolls-Royce for his help? Looking at it in light of countries or states that have legalized euthanasia, if the circumstances allowed the doctor to assist the patient in bringing about his or her own death, then the answer would be no.

If a doctor in Montana assists a patient in dying, and the circumstances of the case allowed him or her to do so and the grateful patient leaves him a horse ranch somewhere in the state, then it is just something that we have to accept. It also tells us that patients who are terminally ill are sometimes so desperate that they are actually grateful when someone helps them end the pain and suffering.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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