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Cases - murder - actus reus

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Adams, R v [1957] Devlin J

Airedale NHS Trust v Bland [1993] HL

Armstrong, R v [1989] Owen J

Attorney-General's Reference (No.3 of 1994) [1996] HL

Blaue, R v [1975] CA

Board of Trade v Owen (1957)

California v Lewis (1899) (California)

Cheshire, R v [1991] CA

Corbett, R v [1996] CA

Cox, R v (1992) Winchester Crown Court, Ognall J

Dear, R v [1996] CA

Dyos, R v [1979] Cautley J

Dyson, R v [1908] CA

Gibbins & Proctor, R v (1918) CA

Hayward, R v (1908) Ridley J

Holland, R v (1841) Maule J

Jordan, R v (1956) CA

Lamb, R v [1967] CA

Mackie, R v (1973) CA

Malcherek & Steel, R v [1981] CA

Maria v Hall (1807)

McKechnie, R v (1991) CA

Mellor, R v [1996] CA

Miller, R v [1983] HL

Page, R v [1953] CMAC

Pagett, R v (1983) CA

Pitts, R v (1842) Erskine J

Pittwood, R v (1902) Wright J

Smith, R v [1959] CMAC

Stone & Dobinson, R v [1977] CA

Thabo Meli, R v (1954) PC

Towers, R v (1874) Denman J

White, R v [1910] CA

Woolmington, R v (1935)

 

Adams, R v [1957] Devlin J

[Murder – the actus reus of - accelerating death by actions]
A doctor was charged with "easing the passing" of a number of elderly patients (some of whom had left bequests to him in their wills) by giving drugs calculated to hasten their deaths.

 

Held; A doctor has no special defence, but

"he is entitled to do all that is proper and necessary to relieve pain even if the measures he takes may incidentally shorten life".

Also here

Airedale NHS Trust v Bland [1993] HL

Red triangle indicating important information

^[Murder – the actus reus of -normally positive action – some omissions, where duty situation exists]

Tony Bland seriously injured in the Hillsborough disaster, was being kept alive only by extensive medical care (not a life-support machine). He had survived for three years in persistent vegetative state (PVS). He continued to breathe normally, but was kept alive only by being fed through tubes. He had no chance of recovery; his doctors (with the support of his family) sought a declaration from the court that it would be lawful for them to discontinue treatment so that he might die peacefully.

 

Held: Treatment could properly be withdrawn in such circumstances, because the best interests of the patient did not involve him being kept alive at all costs.

Lord Goff drew a fundamental distinction between acts and omissions in this context:

". . . the law draws a crucial distinction between cases in which a doctor decides not to provide, or to continue to provide, for his patient treatment or care which could or might prolong his life, and those in which he decides, for example by administering a lethal drug, actively to bring his patient's life to an end . . . the former may be lawful, either because the doctor is giving effect to his patient's wishes . . . or even in certain circumstances in which . . . the patient is incapacitated from stating whether or not he gives his consent. But it is not lawful for a doctor to administer a drug to his patient to bring about his death, even though that course is prompted by a humanitarian desire to end his suffering, however great that suffering may be: see Cox (unreported) 18 September 1992 . . . So to act is to cross the Rubicon which runs between on the one hand the care of the living patient and on the other hand euthanasia."

In this case feeding him was treatment and that treatment would not cure him and therefore was not in his best interests.

 

It was lawful for D's doctors to stop feeding him artificially.

See also Frenchay Healthcare NHS Trust v S [1994] CA. Similar issues can arise in respect of the very elderly or in respect of babies born with very severe mental or physical handicaps, especially where major (and possibly repeated) surgery would be needed to keep them alive see Re J [1991].

 

It was lawful for D's doctors to stop feeding him artificially.  The court had no option but to make a decision one way or the other.

Also here

Armstrong, R v [1989] Owen J

[Murder – the actus reus of -causal link between actions and consequences must be shown]
D a drug addict supplied V with heroin and equipment. V (who had already drunk a large amount of alcohol) injected himself with the heroin and died shortly afterwards. There was conflicting evidence as to whether the heroin contributed to V's death or whether V would have died from the alcohol alone.

 

Held: If the experts were not sure as to the cause of death, he said, the jury could not possibly be.

 

Not guilty of manslaughter

Attorney-General's Reference (No.3 of 1994) [1996] HL

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of - transferred malice etc]
D stabbed child's mother whilst pregnant.  Child lived for only 121 days. Her premature birth was caused by the injuries that her mother received when the defendant stabbed her. On his own admission D intended to cause the woman grievous bodily harm. So the mens rea for murder was present, if the death of the mother had been the result of his act:

 

Held: Where a child is born alive, and dies later from injuries inflicted while in utero.

Murder - No.

Manslaughter - Yes.

If the child dies because of injury to the mother rather than injury to the foetus

Murder - No

Manslaughter – No

 

D could be guilty of manslaughter, but not murder (no intent towards the child). 

Blaue, R v [1975] CA

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of - death occurring from V’s own actions does not break causation – think skull rule]
D stabbed an 18-year-old woman V and punctured her lung. At the hospital, V was told she would need a blood transfusion to save her life, but refused this as contrary to her religious beliefs. She died next day.

 

Held: It has long been the policy of the law that those who use violence on other people must take their victims as they find them. This principle clearly applies to the mental as well as the physical characteristics of the victim, and the courts will rarely make a judgement as to whether the victim's response was reasonable.

 

Guilty of manslaughter (diminished responsibility)

Also here

Board of Trade v Owen (1957)

[Murder – the actus reus of -definition of crime - murder committed outside UK triable in UK]
Preservation of Queen’s Peace, maintenance of law and order within the realm.

 

Held: Correct definition of crime to found in Halsbury’s Laws of England.

"An unlawful act or default which is an offence against the public and renders to person guilty to legal punishment"

California v Lewis (1899) (California)

[Murder – the actus reus of - death occurring from V’s own actions do not break causation]
D shot his brother-in-law, inflicting a wound which would have proved fatal within a relatively short period. However, the victim shortly thereafter cut his own throat, thus further hastening his death.

 

Held: D's shooting was an "operative and substantial cause" of death.

 

Guilty manslaughter

Also here

Comment: Similar case involving the famous explorer Meriwether Lewis

Cheshire, R v [1991] CA

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of - cause of death must be operating and substantial – medical novus must be palpably wrong]
D shot V in an argument in a chip shop, and V was taken to hospital where a tracheotomy was performed. Six weeks later, V suffered breathing problems because of the tracheotomy scar and died. The hospital had been negligent - perhaps even reckless - in not recognising the likely cause of V's problems and responding to them.

 

Held: This did not break the chain of causation from the shooting. D's actions need not be the sole or even the main cause of death as long as they contributed significantly to that result; medical negligence did not exclude D's liability unless it was so independent of his acts and so potent as to make his own contribution insignificant. Only in the most extraordinary and unusual case would treatment, whether right or wrong, given in good faith by a generally competent doctor, be regarded as independent of the original injury.

 

Guilty

Also here

Corbett, R v [1996] CA

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of -death occurring during an escape from D’s threats]
D and V became involved in a fight. V ran away from D, fell in the gutter (probably because he was drunk), and received fatal injuries when he was struck by a passing vehicle.

 

Held: Following Roberts, if V's response had been within the range of foreseeable responses, D's attack was a cause of his death.

 

Guilty manslaughter

Cox, R v (1992) Winchester Crown Court, Ognall J

[Murder – the actus reus of - causal link between actions and consequences must be shown – even compassionate killing can be murder]
D, a GP injected a lethal dose of potassium chloride into his patient V who shortly afterwards died comparatively peacefully.  V (Lillian Boyes) was an elderly lady, terminally ill and in constant severe pain. With the knowledge and approval of her family, she asked D to end her suffering by hastening her death.

 

Held: D could not be charged with murder, because V had been cremated before any suspicion arose and the cause of her death could not conclusively be proved, but the jury found him guilty of attempted murder and the judge passed a suspended prison sentence.

 

Guilty of attempted murder given a 12 month suspended prison sentence

Also here

Dear, R v [1996] CA

[Murder – the actus reus of -causal link between actions and consequences must be shown]
D attacked another man V who had allegedly molested D's 12-year-old daughter, cutting him repeatedly and deeply with a Stanley knife. V died two days later.

 

Held: D argued that V had in fact committed suicide by reopening his healing wounds, or alternatively by failing to stem the bleeding them after they had reopened themselves. This would not break the chain of causation even if true, and affirmed the conviction.

 

Guilty

Dyos, R v [1979] Cautley J

[Murder – the actus reus of -causal link between actions and consequences must be shown]
D and V were involved in a fight at a community centre, in the course of which D struck V on the head with a brick. V died nine days later, and the pathologist found two substantial head wounds (one caused by D, the other of unknown origin), one or both of which was the cause of death, but from either of which V might have recovered.

 

Held: The trial judge withdrew the murder charge from the jury, saying the Crown had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that D's act was the cause of death.

Dyson, R v [1908] CA

[Murder – the actus reus of -accelerating death by actions]
D killed his baby son; he threw him down, and beat him until the child was unconscious, fracturing his skull. The child died some months later from that injury.

 

Held: Lord Alverstone

"... the proper question ... was whether the prisoner accelerated the child's death by the injuries which he inflicted ... the fact that the child was already suffering from meningitis from which it would in any event have died before long would afford no answer."

 Guilty

Gibbins & Proctor, R v (1918) CA

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of -omissions – duty situations]
D and his common law wife failed to feed the man's 7 year-old child, Nelly, and she died from starvation. The woman hated Nelly, and was clearly the moving force

 

Held:  Where there is the duty to act, failure to do so can lead to liability even for murder if the necessary mens rea is present.

The woman was held to be liable because, while the child was not hers, she was living with the man and had accepted his money for food.

The courts regarded the parent's duty towards a young child as so self-evident as not to require analysis or authority.

 

Guilty of murder

Hayward, R v (1908) Ridley J

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of -escape case]
D threatened his wife with violence and chased her out of the house.  She died from an unsuspected medical condition aggravated by violent exercise and fright.

 

Held:  The judge departed from Towers, and told the jury that death from fright alone, caused by an illegal act such as a threat of violence, was enough to sustain a charge of manslaughter.

 

Guilty

Holland, R v (1841) Maule J

[Murder – the actus reus of -death occurring from V’s own actions do not break causation]
D assaulted V and injured one of his fingers. V was advised to have the finger amputated but refused, and subsequently died of tetanus.

 

Held:  D was held to have caused the death.

 

Guilty

Jordan, R v (1956) CA

Red triangle indicating important information

 

[Murder – the actus reus of - causation - novus actus interveniens – medical treatment palpably wrong]
D stabbed V, and V died from bronchopneumonia in hospital about a week later. New evidence not available at the trial indicated that the bronchopneumonia was probably caused by B's unusual reaction to terramycin (which had been given even after his allergy had been discovered) and/or by an excess dose of intravenous fluids.

 

Held: The medical treatment was 'palpably wrong' and would have 'precluded' a jury from holding that death was caused by D's action.

 

Not guilty of murder

Also here

Lamb, R v [1967] CA

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of battery]
D and a friend V were playing with a revolver. In the chamber there were two bullets, but neither was opposite the hammer when D, jokingly, pointed the gun at V and pulled the trigger. The chamber rotated and V was killed.

 

Held: Since V shared in the joke and did not feel threatened (since both believed the gun to be safe) there was no assault and hence no unlawful act to support D's conviction for manslaughter.

 

Not guilty

Mackie, R v (1973) CA

Red triangle indicating important information

 

 

[Murder – the actus reus of - death occurring during an escape from D’s threats]
D threatened his three-year-old stepson with a severe thrashing for some minor misbehaviour. The boy tried to run away but fell downstairs, dislocated his neck, and died. D was charged with manslaughter.

 

Held: Conviction upheld. The judge had put four questions to the jury:

  1. Was the boy in fear of D?

  2. Did that fear cause him to try to escape?

  3. Was that fear well founded?

  4. Was it caused by D's unlawful conduct,

allowing for the fact that D was in loco parentis and could lawfully administer reasonable punishment? These were the right questions, and the jury had evidently answered each of them affirmatively.

 

Guilty

Malcherek & Steel, R v [1981] CA

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of -cause of death must be operating and substantial]

D stabbed his wife who was taken to hospital and put on a life support machine.  She suffered two heart failures and after ten days had irretrievable brain damage.  The doctors switched off the machine.

 

Held: The doctors' decision did not break the chain of causation; D's act could be regarded as the cause of V's death.

 

Guilty murder

Also here

Maria v Hall (1807)

[Murder – the actus reus of - Queen's peace]
A civil action for wages earned by an enemy alien, it was said in argument and not disputed that if a prisoner of war is murdered the guilty person may be indicted.

 

McKechnie, R v (1991) CA

[Murder – the actus reus of - cause of death must be operating and substantial – medical novus must be palpably wrong – thin skull rule]
D and others attacked an elderly man V with whom D had a long-standing disagreement.  V suffered brain damage. While V was being treated in hospital, the doctors discovered he had a stomach ulcer but decided they could not operate safely because of the head injuries. About a month later, the ulcer burst and V died.

 

Held: The trial judge's ruling that the original injury had caused the death was correct. He was unlucky: he did not cause the stomach ulcer, and had V not gone to hospital after the attack his ulcer would probably never have been discovered and he would have died anyway. But those who use violence on others must take their victims as they find them.

 

Guilty of manslaughter (provocation)

Mellor, R v [1996] CA

[Murder – the actus reus of - cause of death must be operating and substantial – not necessarily the only cause]
D injured V, who had died in hospital two days later.

 

Held: As long as the prosecution proved the injuries inflicted by D were at least a significant cause, if not the only cause, of death, that was sufficient. There is no onus on the prosecution to show the absence of medical negligence.

 

Guilty murder

Miller, R v [1983] HL

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of -causation - prior dangerous acts]
D a tramp took shelter in an empty house, and went to sleep with a cigarette in his hand. He woke up to find that he had set the mattress alight.  He got up, went into another room, and went to sleep there. The fire took hold and the house burned down.

 

Held: Once he had created a danger of harmful consequences by his inadvertent action, he had a duty to try to avert those consequences.

 

Guilty of arson

Page, R v [1953] CMAC

[Murder – the actus reus of - Queen's peace]
A British soldier murdered of an Egyptian national while off duty in Egypt.

 

Held: Obiter: even an enemy alien was "under the King's peace" and entitled to the protection of the law unless actively engaged in acts of war against the Crown.

 

Guilty

Pagett, R v (1983) CA

 

Red Triangle indicating "Must Know" material

 

^[Murder - the actus reus of - causation - act of third party - novus actus interveniens - self-defence not novus]
D armed with a shotgun and cartridges, shot at police who were attempting to arrest him. D held a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant by him as a shield.

The officers returned fire and the girl was killed.

 

The jury acquitted him of murder and convicted him of manslaughter.

Held: His unlawful and dangerous act (directed against the police) was the cause of G's death, and that was sufficient. [The police were subsequently found to have been negligent, and had to pay civil compensation to G's family]


(1) It was for the jury - properly directed - to decide whether or not the relevant causal link has been established;

(2) The accused's act need not be the sole cause, or even the main cause, of the victim's death, it being enough that the act contributed significantly to that result.

(3) Although an act of an accused may constitute a causa sine qua non (but for test) of the death of the victim, nevertheless the intervention of a third person may be regarded as the sole cause of the victim's death (or novus actus interveniens) thereby relieving the accused of criminal liability.

(4) A reasonable act of self-preservation, or self-defence, is not a novus actus interveniens; nor is an act done in the execution of legal duty.

(5) In the present case, the jury must have found that the appellant had used the girl victim by force and against her will as a shield to protect him from any shots fired by the police. The effect was that he committed not one but two unlawful acts, both of which were dangerous - the act of firing at the police, and the act of holding the girl as a shield in front of him when the police might well fire shots in his direction in self-defence. Either act could, if on the above principles it resulted in the death of the girl, constitute the actus reus of manslaughter.

 

Guilty of unlawful act manslaughter
Pitts (1842) and Curley (1909) Considered

Also here and here

Pitts, R v (1842) Erskine J

[Murder – the actus reus of -escape cases]
V was found dead in a river, and it appeared that he had drowned, allegedly during an argument with D.

 

Held: The judge said a man might throw himself into a river under such circumstances as to render it not a voluntary act, but the apprehension must be of immediate violence and well grounded...no other way of escape but that it was such a step as a reasonable man might take. In those circumstances, D would be liable for V's death.

 

Acquitted by the jury 

Pittwood, R v (1902) Wright J

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of - omissions- duty under a contract] 
D was a level crossing keeper who negligently left open the crossing gate. This led to the death of a carter whose cart was struck by a train.

 

Held: D had a duty (arising from his contract of employment) to shut the gate, and although this duty was owed to his employers rather than to the public at large, it was enough that his negligent failure to act could lead to conviction.

 

Guilty of manslaughter

Smith, R v [1959] CMAC

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of -cause of death must be operating and substantial – medical novus must be palpably wrong]
D stabbed V with a bayonet during a fight in barracks. V's friend took him to the first aid post, but on the way, he dropped V twice. At the first aid post the medical officer was busy and took some time to get to V who died about two hours after the stabbing.  Had he been given proper treatment he would probably have recovered.

 

Held: The treatment he was given was thoroughly bad and might well have affected his chances of recovery, but medical treatment correct or not does not break the chain of causation. If at the time of death the original wound is still an operating cause and a substantial cause, then death can be said to be a result of the wound albeit that some other cause is also operating.

Only when the second cause of death is so overwhelming as to make the original wound merely part of the history can it be said that death does not flow from the wound.

 

Guilty

Also here

Stone & Dobinson, R v [1977] CA

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of -manslaughter - assumption of duty of care for infirm person - indifference to obvious risk of injury to health - sufficient to prove recklessness]
D’s lived with eccentric F, who was anorexic. F died in bed.

Held:

  1. The defendants had assumed the duty of caring for her.

  2. Recklessness proved by indifference to an obvious risk or actual foresight of the risk and running that risk. Mere inadvertence, however, was insufficient to prove recklessness.

 

Both guilty

Thabo Meli, R v (1954) PC

Red triangle indicating important information

[Murder – the actus reus of -contemporaneity of mens rea and actus reus applies to actions as a whole]   
D brought V to a hut hit him until he appeared dead, and then threw him over a cliff. V died of exposure.

 

Held: Actus and mens present throughout, no need to separate them, causal link.

 

Guilty

Towers, R v (1874) Denman J

[Murder – the actus reus of - death occurring during an escape from D’s threats]
D violently assaulted a girl who was holding a 4½-month baby in her arms.  The baby was so frightened by the girl's screams that it went into convulsions, and died a month later.

 

Held: The judge said that there was sufficient evidence to put the manslaughter charge to the jury.  Mere intimidation directed to an adult, causing him to die of fright, would not be murder, but the rule did not apply to a child of tender years.

 

Guilty manslaughter

White, R v [1910] CA

Red triangle indicating important information

^[Murder – the actus reus of -causal link between actions and consequences must be shown]
D put cyanide into his mother's lemonade drink, but she died of heart failure before the poison could kill her. The answer to the question 'But for what the defendant did would she have died?' is 'No'. She would have died anyway.

 

Held:  He was acquitted of murder because he had not actually caused his mother's death.

 

Guilty of attempted murder. 

Also here

Woolmington, R v (1935)

Red triangle indicating important information

^[Murder – the actus reus of - innocent until proven guilty, onus on prosecution] 
D aged 21 accidentally shot his wife V aged 17.  Following quarrels V went back to live with her mother. In order to persuade her to return he took a shotgun to show her and threaten her that he would commit suicide.  He tied the sawn off shotgun over his shoulder under his coat, as he showed it to her it went off accidentally killing V.

 

The issue to be decided in this case was whether Foster's Crown Law (1762) was correct where it said that were a death occurred it is to be presumed to be murder unless the defendant proves otherwise. 

 

Held:  Murder cases were reported since at least Mackalley's case in 1611, but there was no authority, for Foster's statement.  It was found in a text book and often repeated by other writers and followed by judges, but it was wrong. 

 

Viscount Sankey LC:

"Throughout the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen, that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt subject to what I have already said as to the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception. If, at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt, created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner, as to whether the prisoner killed the deceased with a malicious intention, the prosecution has not made out the case and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal. No matter what the charge or where the trial, the principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained. When dealing with a murder case the Crown must prove (a) death as the result of a voluntary act of the accused and (b) malice of the accused."

Not guilty

 

 

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