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Crime VI - Mens Rea II

Updated on August 5, 2017

Earlier we discussed physician assisted suicides or euthanasia. In R v Adam (1957) we looked at the action of assisting a patient to bring about his or her own death for example by injecting the patient’s body with a lethal dose of heroin or morphine. While the action may be debatable, there was clearly no intention to kill in the normal sense of the words and therefore the doctor was adjudged to be not guilty of murder.

Intention in mens rea normally denotes the act of killing or causing serious bodily harm to another without the consent of the other and it must be malicious or blameworthy. When the malicious component of intention is missing it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty that the defendant did indeed intent to commit murder.

The doctor may have intended to kill. There was no other possible outcome to his actions but death; and as a doctor he would know better than anyone else that administering a substantial quantity of morphine or heroine to a patient would bring about death but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he intended to murder someone in the legal sense of the word murder. Therefore killing someone or the act of killing another doesn’t always equate to murder.

In order for the defendant to be convicted of murder the prosecution must first establish malice aforethought or some degree of premeditation and it normally means, to put it simply, killing someone without his or her consent.

In R v Vickers (1957) the accused broke into the cellar of a shop with the intention of stealing the money in the shop. Unknown to him there was a 73 year old lady who was residing upstairs and she was somehow alerted to his presence. The accused spotted her and tried to stop her from raising the alarm and in the scuffle that followed she fell down and died from the injuries that she had sustained. The accused was charged with murder.

The court while deciding elaborated on malice aforethought and came to the conclusion that despite the fact that it requires some degree of premeditation, malice aforethought can be spontaneous, in that, the intention to kill can take place just prior to committing the act or even a second before the accused commits the act and despite the normal definition that is attached to the word premeditate, it doesn’t always require long and lengthy planning.

Malice afterthought simply means that the act is done with wanton, often utter, disregard for human life or a degree of callousness that completely disregards the consequences of the act.

Malice afterthought however does not in any way imply hate, rage or any form of ill-will towards the victim for example when the act of killing is done for profit.

Intent is further divided into direct and oblique intent. Direct intent is straightforward i.e. when the accused intends to kill his victim without giving any thought to the consequences or having thought about it dismisses it and proceeds to kill his victim.

Oblique intent is when the accused shows wonton or careless disregard for the safety and well being of another and his actions deprive the victim of his or her life.

This area of the law was first recognized or realized in the case of DPP v Smith (1961) - Smith had stolen some goods and loaded it to the back of his car. A policeman ordered him to stop but he drove off instead and the policeman jumped on to the back of the car in order to stop him. The policeman was subsequently throw off from the back of the vehicle, into the path of other oncoming vehicles and died as a result. The accused was convicted and he appeal.

The House of Lords unanimously upheld the conviction. In doing what he (Smith) did, he must, as a reasonable man have contemplated that serious harm was likely to occur. Hence he is guilty of murder.

The test in DPP v Smith (1961) is as follows:- If the jury is satisfied that he (Smith) must as a reasonable man have contemplated that grievous bodily harm (GBH) was likely to have resulted to the policeman from his actions and such harm did in actual fact occur, than the accused is guilty of murder.

On the other hand if the jury is satisfied that he (Smith) could not have contemplated that the policeman would incur grievous bodily harm (GBH) as a result of his actions then the verdict would be guilty of manslaughter. The accused was guilty either way; it was just a matter of deciding the extent of his guilt.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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