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Crime VIII - Mens Rea IV

Updated on August 7, 2017

In R v Cunningham (1981) the accused entered a pub and confronted his victim a man who he believed was having an affair with his fiancée. He pushed the victim down and hit him over the head numerous times with a barstool. The accused was arrested and convicted for murder. The accused appealed on the grounds that any conviction for murder required malicious intent.

His contention was that the act was a result of passion or a crime of passion (crime passionnel) i.e. a crime that is committed out of anger or heartbreak and lacks malicious intent, usually committed at the heat or spur of the moment. The defense is usually raised in cases with regards to spouses and partners, where one partner suspects that his or her other half is having an adulterous affair with someone else. It lacks the element of premeditation. However, as we have said before premeditation despite the ordinary meaning that is attached to the word, can be spontaneous or can occur just moments before the act is committed.

The House of Lords upheld the conviction in that malice aforethought has never been limited to the intention to kill. It suffices that the accused intended to cause his victim grievous bodily harm.

In R v Mitchell (1983) the accused jumped a queue at the post office and was confronted by an elderly man. The accused hit the elderly man and he fell into the crowd and collided with an elderly lady. As a result, the elderly lady fell down and broke her leg. She subsequently died from the injuries that she’d sustained. The accused was charged and convicted for manslaughter.

The accused appealed on the grounds that his actions were not directed at the old lady but the court dismissed the appeal and decided along the lines of R v Latimer (1886) in that the act need not be directed at the victim and the intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm is transferable. It suffices that at the time the accused committed the act there was an intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm to someone.

In R v Maloney (1985) the accused and his stepfather had been drinking heavily during a family party. Subsequently, after the other family members had retired for the night, the pair participated in a gun loading contest which the accused won. The stepfather then challenged the accused to pull the trigger, which he did. The gun went off and he killed his stepfather. The accused was charged and convicted of murder. The accused appealed.

The House of Lords decided that the accused was not guilty of murder because he lacked intent and malice afterthought. His conviction was reduced to a conviction for manslaughter and mens rea here is defined as a careless or reckless act that deprives another of his or her life.

Similarly, in Hancock and Shankland (1986) two striking miners dropped a concrete block and a concrete post from a motorway bridge which struck a taxi taking a working miner to work, thereby killing the taxi driver. The accused argued that they merely intended to stop the work from progressing or continuing while the prosecution claimed that the pair intended to cause grievous bodily harm and nothing less. The accused were convicted for murder. They appealed.

The House of Lords substituted the conviction for murder with that of manslaughter and held that in order to determine that if the accused was guilty or otherwise the jury out to be directed to look into the probability of the consequences. The higher the probability the higher the chances that the accused intended to either kill or cause grievous bodily harm.

By looking at the probability of the outcome, the test is leaning more towards the objective test and it is an indication that the courts are not always prepared, especially in cases and instances of manslaughter to simply look into the accused’s state of mind. The drawback with looking into the probability of the result especially in criminal cases is that it depends on the accused’s ability to reason and often in criminal cases the accused does not have the ability or the competency to reason. It most instances the acts of the accused are done without giving the matter much thought or at the spur of the moment but that is something that is best left in the hands of the courts or something that parliament has to legislate on.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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