In the course of a mugging Debby manages to unintentionally cause the death of fellow pupils as well as causing a chain of events leading to the death of a teacher. The death of the pupils can definitely be attributed to Debby, one through an act and the other though a omission, but liability for the death of the teacher is less certain. On deciding Debby’s criminal liability for each of her actions one must try to identify the mens rea for each actus reus that has been committed.
This will be particularly important concerning the deaths as it will mean the difference between a conviction of murder and one of manslaughter (or neither); a mandatory life sentence with the former and a possibly much lesser sentence with the latter. With this in mind we must explore all of the appropriate defences of manslaughter in order to find the one most likely to succeed in a court of law. Firstly, looking the death of Angela, we can see that Debby will be liable for her death as she has directly injured Angela which has resulted in her death.
It should be noted that it is no defence to say that her death was not foreseeable as one must take their victim as they find them. This is known as the ‘thin skull’ rule established in the case of Blaue1. For Angela to be convicted of murder it must be proved that she not only committed the act of killing, but that she had the intention to cause death or Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) to the victim. According to the case of DPP v. Smith2 GBH is “serious harm”. An intention to kill need not be present and the intention of GBH alone will constitute ‘malice aforethought’, required for murder.
In this case Debby definitely fits these requirements and is therefore liable for murder. It should also be identified here that Debby may also have liability for the crime of constructive manslaughter. To be liable for this one must firstly be committing an unlawful act, secondly, there must be reasonable foresight of the risk of that act as confirmed in the case of Newbury3 and finally the act must be the cause of the victim’s death. Debby has committed the unlawful act of battery in the course of a mugging and it is reasonably foreseeable that this act was dangerous.
With the information given it is also not unjust to say that this act caused the victim’s death as it would take ‘an act so overwhelming to render the original cause merely a part of history’4, to break the chain of causation, according to the decision in Smith5. One would therefore wish to persuade the court that this situation is one relevant to that of constructive manslaughter as apposed to murder to attempt to avoid a mandatory life sentence. The situation concerning the death of Brenda is slightly harder to attribute liability as it was the spreading fire which caused her death.
It cannot be said that Debby intended to cause Brenda GBH, nor that Brenda’s death was foreseeable. It can also be argued that as the fire was started accidentally there was not even the mens rea of arson. However, the main point to be recognized is the failure to act to avert or control the dangerous situation. Previous cases, such as Miller, display how one is liable for damaged caused when there is a clear omission to act to avert a dangerous situation one has caused. It is for this reason that I submit Debby will be liable for the crime of Manslaughter by Gross Negligence.
The requirement for this is that there must be a duty of care owed to those injured and, of course, a breach of such duty. It is not unjust to impose a duty on Debby for her to take reasonable care of her fellow pupils to avert a dangerous situation that she has caused. The negligent act/omission must also have caused the victims death, which it has undoubtedly done in this situation. For Brenda’s death Debby may also be liable for constructive manslaughter. Again there has been an unlawful act committed, that of arson, there is reasonable foresight of the dangers of that act and this has caused the victim’s death.
However, here the unlawful act is somewhat questionable as it is stated that the fire was started accidentally. For such a conviction it would be up to the court to decide whether this was indeed the case. They will also have to consider whether or not the act was conducted recklessly, which would suffice to find the unlawful act of arson to be committed. If neither the intention nor recklessness can be found then no unlawful act has been committed (causing Brenda’s death) and so would fall outside of the requirements for constructive manslaughter.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the failure to act to put out the fire will not suffice as the unlawful act as one cannot be liable for constructive manslaughter stemming from an omission. This is where it crosses the boundaries into the realm of Manslaughter by Gross Negligence. Finally, the events surrounding Cathy’s death also pose some questions of liability. Can somebody be liable for the suicide of a person traumatised by the events caused by them?
In this particular case I suggest it would be very hard to attribute blame to Debby for the death of Cathy as it is far too remote to do so. The suicide of Cathy is a completely separate incident and no foresight of such an incident is possible. One could say that Debby’s actions are still directly relevant to Cathy’s death as a link can be found. However, I summit that the courts would be very reluctant to impose liability for such situations as this could open the ‘floodgates’ to a whole range of people wishing to claim for alleged psychiatric damage.
In this case Debby is liable not only for the murder/manslaughter of Angela, but also for Brenda. The facts of the case mean that it is highly unlikely that Debby will be able to escape from a conviction of these crimes. It is therefore advisable for Debby to try to persuade the court to find her guilty of the constructive manslaughter of Angela and the manslaughter by gross negligence of Brenda. This will hopefully reduce the sentences in both cases by attempting to gain the sympathy of the court.