In the film Se7en directed by David Fincher, a killer, J Doe, obsessed with the seven deadly sins carries out a grisly series of murders that coerce the victim or others to be unwilling participants in their death or the death of another.

In murder number 5, representing lust, Doe puts a gun in the mouth of an unnamed brothel patron and threatens to kill him unless he kills a prostitute. The patron complies to save his own life, and is released by Doe. The patron stays at the scene until Police arrive, still partially tied up, and traumatized by what he has seen and done. The officers seem sympathetic, because they have been investigating these series of murders and know that Doe has been able to coerce people into basically murdering themselves so far. The patron admits everything he did during his interrogation, sobbing despondently, but pleading that he only did it because he had a gun in his mouth.

At the end of the movie, Doe turns himself in and offers to show Detective Mills the location of more bodies. He taunts and antagonizes Mills during the trip. When they arrive where Doe instructs, a delivery van shows up, and delivers a box containing the severed head of Detective Mills' wife. Doe gives a cruel, upsetting monologue to Mills, bragging self-righteously about what he has done and smirking as he informs the yet-unaware Mills that his wife had been pregnant. Mills' partner asserts that Doe has done all this to goad Mills into shooting him out of wrath, thus completing the list, and Doe doesn't deny it. Mills struggles for a few moments, then gives in and shoots Doe in cold blood. Later he is shown arrested, appearing to have offered no resistance.

Both these incidents take place in New York.

I'm curious to know what the legal outlook is for each of these people. I expect that they won't escape prison, but I also suspect their sentences will take into account the circumstances? How could their defense attorney potentially use these circumstances in making their case?

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because belongs on movies.stackexchange.com Mar 26, 2018 at 16:21
  • 1
    Although it's inspired by the movie, the question is really about criminal defense. How might a defense case use the fact that the accused was coerced or goaded into the act?
    – Hemsy19
    Mar 26, 2018 at 16:35
  • law.stackexchange.com/questions/19571/… See this question about the 12 Angry Men movie. It poses questions about a movie and is upvoted and answered.
    – Hemsy19
    Mar 26, 2018 at 16:45
  • law.stackexchange.com/questions/16832/… Also this question about events that occur in Breaking Bad
    – Hemsy19
    Mar 26, 2018 at 16:46
  • 2
    I have upvoted this question, because I don't think it should be closed. Although it focuses on a particular movie, it asks an interesting legal question. However, @Hemsy19, I suggest breaking this question up into two questions, one for the brothel patron and one for Det. Mills.
    – sharur
    Mar 26, 2018 at 18:08

1 Answer 1


In the first case, under US law, you are not considered guilty in most cases where you are forced to commit a crime under duress (gun to your head would certainly qualify). Murder is a rare exception to this rule, and the patron can be tried for the murder of the prostitute. Given the nature of Doe, who uses situations of duress to force a no win scenario for his victims, a good defense would likely work to get Jury Nullification of this crime, given the circumstance. The likely defense would be to validate that the man would not ordinarily kill a prostitute and thus only under a situation such as the one presented would he. It is still a crime, but the jury could choose not to convict, but it's a gamble as the law of crime of duress is likely to come up in the course of the trial.

Situation 2 is a little more grim, as in this case, Doe has already surrendered and is custody and admits to a crime that is personal to the detective. I haven't seen the movie, so I can't suggest if there was an appropriate time for Mills to be pulled from the case prior to this revelation, but if such an opportunity happened, he should have. Since Doe is not threatening Mills at the point of time and he had already carried out his crime and been captured, Mills is an officer of the law who is killing someone in his custody. This is a crime and should be prosecuted. The circumstances might serve as mitigating factors and the jury may nullify, but these are circumstances that are less likely than the above case. Mills is also the lead detective in this case (?), and thus should know how Doe functions and what he is trying to get done.

In the role of prosecutor, I personally would not push the crime against the patron as the likely jury would be too sympathetic to the defense. I would prosecute Mills as his responsibilities as a law enforcer and his training would have made him well aware that what he did was a crime.

  • 2
    About whether there was a good time for Mills to have been pulled from the case; there wasn't. He thought his wife was okay and he had no personal involvement with the case right up to the moment when Doe surprises him with his wife's severed head and the story of raping torturing and murdering her. But there was a moment in the investigation where they find out that Doe knows exactly who is investigating him, and is still on the loose. That would have been a good time to put Mills' wife under guard, but they leave her at home alone. Bit of a plot hole, because it's so unbelievably careless.
    – Hemsy19
    Mar 27, 2018 at 14:53
  • 2
    @Hemsy19: Thanks for the heads up. Yeah, I do not see pulling Mills from the case because Doe knows who he is to be a valid solution, but his family should have been placed under guard. That said, it does not invalidate Miller committing a criminal action of taking Doe's life once Doe was taken into custody.
    – hszmv
    Mar 27, 2018 at 14:58
  • @hszmv: Is the exception specifically for murder, or homicide in general. Because given the lack of mens rea, I doubt there is enough to charge murder for.
    – sharur
    Oct 26, 2022 at 19:04
  • @sharur Homicide is the death of a person by a human. Murder is an unjustified homicide. The logic of the exception to murder being justified under duress is that duress operates on the defendant's belief that he was committing a crime to avoid potential lethally injury to himself or someone else. If the crime he is committing is specifically to kill a third party, than he is complicit in the third party's death if he complies, but not complicit in the hostage's death if he refuses (the party that makes the threat has the final choice in following through with their threats.).
    – hszmv
    Oct 26, 2022 at 19:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .