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Case Study Principles Determining Actus Reus In Homicide Law Essay

A homicide is defined as the unlawfully killing of another human being. The actus reus of this offence can be proven by establishing that the defendant either by his acts or omissions is responsible for the death of the victim.

The courts have devised two principles in determining the responsibility for the death of the victim, one is the ‘but for’ principle or factual cause and the other is the legal cause. [3] 

The ‘but for’ test works on the principle that it must be proved that, but for, Walter’s conduct, the event would not have occurred. [4] Thus in White [1910] [5] the defendant was not found guilty of murder although it was his aim to kill his mother. [6]  He poisoned her drink but she died of a heart attack before drinking it. [7] Clearly from the facts of the case it can be seen that but for Walter striking Angela across the face she would not have collapsed to the ground unconscious, thus requiring medical treatment which ultimately led to her death. Walter’s acts might be the necessary starting point of the events which may have brought about the death but other legal issues must be examined in the context of a homicide. [8] 

The other principle to be satisfied is whether or not Walter is legally responsible for Angela’s death. Is Walter the substantial and operating cause of the death? R v Smith [1959] [9] or was he the main cause or even a substantial cause to Angela’s death. R v Cheshire [1991]. [10] The facts states that Angela was given a drug to which she was allergic which eventually caused her death but in R v Blaue [1975] [11] the egg-shell skull principle was applied in that you take your victim as you find him and therefore this circumstance will not break the chain of causation. [12] This raises the question that the doctor who administered the drugs could also be the cause of the death and it may be argued that he should be held liable for the death similar to the authority of R v Jordan (1956) [13] where it was shown that negligent medical treatment may have caused the death and not the initial act [14] thus breaking the chain of causation which would relieve Walter of the charge of murder. However it must be noted that Jordan has always been approached with caution and only in exceptional and bizarre situations it could break the chain of causation therefore it may prove futile to succeed on this argument. Thus in R v Smith [1959] [15] the accused conviction for murder was upheld although the victim who suffered an injury was dropped twice while being carried to seek medical treatment causing the misdiagnosis of his wounds resulting in improper treatment. [16] Notably in Malcherek and Steel (1981) [17] it was held that the original wound was still operating and was a substantial cause of death as Lord Lane C.J stated that Jordan was an exceptional case and the decision given in Smith should be preferred. Similarly in Cheshire (1991) [18] the court held that only in extreme and remote circumstances can treatment be regarded as being independent of the victims’ acts. [19] Thus demonstrating that the that the defendant’s act need not be the sole cause, or even the main cause, of death provided it is a cause in that it contributed significantly to that result . [20] Pagett (1983) [21] 

Based on the facts and applying the principle in White [1910] [22] it can be established that `but for` Walter striking Angela she would not have died and is therefore the factual cause of her death. Although Angela was inadvertently given the wrong drug Walter set in motion the events that ultimately led to her death (Smith (1959), [23] Pagett (1983)) [24] and therefore is legally responsible. He had done what was more than a minimal contribution to the cause and therefore can be said to be the substantial and operative cause of death (Cheshire (1991)). [25] 

Suffice it to say that Walter is the cause of Angela’s death but did he have the necessary mens rea for murder. The mens rea for murder is the intention to kill or to cause grievous bodily harm (Moloney [1985]). [26] Intention is one of the main forms of mens rea and can be divided into direct intent and indirect intent. Direct intent can be said to exist where the defendant sets out on a course of conduct to bring about a result which in fact occurs. Mohan (1976). [27] Indirect intent can be said to exist where the defendant embarks on a course of conduct to bring about a desired result, knowing that the consequence of his actions will also bring about another result. [28] A person is assumed to intend those consequences of his acts that are inevitable but cannot be presumed to intend a consequence merely because it is probable or natural [29] (Moloney (1985)) [30] . Thus foresight of consequences is only evidence of intention (Hancock v Shankland (1986)). [31] It should be left to a jury to decide, on all the available evidence, whether or not in fact the accused did intend the consequences. [32] If they found that the consequence of death or grievous bodily harm was a virtually certain result of the defendant actions and he realized it then intention should be inferred from the facts [33] (Nedrick (1986) [34] ,Woolin [1991]). [35] 

On the facts in question it is evident that Walter suffered from schizophrenia, a condition which affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves making them susceptible to hear certain voices not heard by others or see things that are not actually there. [36] He admitted to the police that he felt compelled to hit Angela after being directed by voices in his head which saw it fitting that she be severely punished for her actions. Can it be said that he was virtually certain that Angela would have suffered grievous bodily harm? Walter can be convicted of murder once he had the intention to cause grievous bodily harm [37] and the jury would be entitled to find that he intended to consequences of his actions and if the consequences was virtually certain and he recognized it as such (Wooling 1991). [38] 

In the present case is not clear in the absence of medical evidence whether a person who suffers from such condition has the capacity to intend his actions. Suffice it say that in these circumstances Walter may or not be convicted of murder. However, based on the facts in question if he is charged with murder he can attempt to plead the defence of diminish responsibility which will reduce his charge to manslaughter.

Diminished responsibility can be used as a defence only to a charge of murder and if an accused charged with murder is successful in this plea his conviction will be reduced to manslaughter. [39] Section 2(1) of the Homicide Act Provides: Where a person kills or is party to a killing of another, he shall not be convicted of murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in doing or being a party to the killing. [40] .To be successful the defendant must satisfy three requirements as set out by Section 2 of the Homicide Act 1957. They are

Abnormality of the mind

The abnormality must be caused by arrested or retarded development of the mind or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury.

The abnormality must substantially impair the defendant's mental responsibility.

This defence has been amended by Section 52 of the Coroners and Justice Act [41] and implementation of this new provision will come in to effect on the 4th day of October 2010.

In this amendment, abnormality of mental functioning will replace abnormality of the mind which occurred as a result of an accepted medical condition and outlines the rationale for the defendant’s behaviour in relation to the killing. [42] It must also be established that the defendant’s capacity to realize their actions and form a logical conclusion or to exercise self control was significantly prejudiced. [43] 

At present Walter would have to provide medical evidence that he suffered from an abnormality of the mind which hampered his ability to form a rational judgment and the ability to control his physical acts even if he was aware of it but compelled by voices to severely punish Angela for her behaviour. [44] In R v Byrne (1960) [45] the appellant who suffered severe perverted sexual desires murdered a young girl and then mutilated her body. He successfully pleaded the defence of diminish responsibility, thus reducing his conviction of murder to manslaughter. [46] It was held that abnormality of mind encompassed all mental behaviours, including the ability to exercise will power to control physical acts using rational judgment. [47] Similarly in Brown [1993] [48] it was held that abnormality of the mind was a wider term than insanity and mental disorder which included aberrations, perception, understanding and judgment. [49] To establish this, Walter’s state of mind must be compared with one that a reasonable man would term abnormal and prove that it was more difficult for him to control his acts than it would have been for other people. This burden shifts to the defence and it must be proven on the balance of probability by providing medical expert witnesses to satisfy the court. [50] It must also be established that the abnormality of the mind happened at the time the act was committed. [51] Although it is imperative to have medical evidence it is still a question for the jury to decide and a judge cannot instruct a jury of this defence unless it has been raised by the defense. [52] 

 The second element that Walter must satisfy in order to successfully plead this defence under the present legislation is to prove that his condition was caused by arrested or retarded development of the mind or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury. [53] This has been interpreted by the courts to mean that it must be internal factors affecting the individual and not some external factors like the use of alcohol and drugs (R v Tandy [1988]) [54] but for prolong injury such as brain damage caused by the use of these substances. R v Wood [2008]. [55] The facts indicate that Walter suffers from schizophrenia, a known medical condition which affects the minds as defined earlier in this paper. Therefore his condition may be regarded as being caused by intrinsic forces causing him theses compelling and irresistible urges.

The third element Walter has to establish when pleading this defence under the homicide Act is that the abnormality of the mind severely weakened his abilty to dicern what was morally right from wrong [56] thus forcing him to severely strike Angela. At the point of striking Angela he must not be aware of his actions and if indeed he was and his attack on her was premeditated then his attempt to plea this defence will fail. However it must be noted that this defence must be raised at the trial for it to be used in the appeal. R v Andrews [2003]. [57] 

Based on the facts cited and the legal authority it appears that Walter may be able to use this plea as a defence in order to reduce his conviction. Ultimately it is the jury who decides even if there is medical evidence to confirm that his suffers from schizophrenia and deliberate accordingly.

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