If a person sets a bomb in a music festival. Based on previous attendance numbers, they expected 60,000 people to show up. 120,000 people showed up and were killed by their bomb. Legally, did they murder 60,000 people, or all 120,000?

Also, suppose they set up the bomb just to kill the production crew, and they end up killing the attendees. Did they still commit 120,000 murders?

  • 15
    Possible relevant example from here in Minneapolis. Someone burned a shop during the riots here and was charged with arson. They recently discovered a body in the wreckage of the building of someone who got trapped when it burned. The arsonist didn't intend to kill that person, but they are now facing murder charges.
    – Seth R
    Jul 21, 2020 at 14:11
  • 2
    See also 2017 Malawat poisoning, where it's alleged that a young woman tried to poison her husband from a forced marriage, but instead ended up killing 17 people.
    – Golden Cuy
    Jul 22, 2020 at 3:43
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    – feetwet
    Jul 24, 2020 at 22:33

6 Answers 6


Through the legal doctrine of "transferred intent", wherein if one intends to murder A, and undertake actions to kill A, but one's actions kill B, one has murdered B.

Whatever crimes one would have committed, had one performed them on one's intended target, are considered committed against the individual one actually performed them on. Many crimes require one to have mens rea to be guilty; they do not require one to have mens rea towards a given individual.

So, so long as one had the proper intent to murder someone, the actual victim of their actions is irrelevant.

  • 2
    Are they legally the same kinds of murder, or different kinds? I just picked a state as an example.
    – moonman239
    Jul 21, 2020 at 0:05
  • 11
    It's a principal of common law, so it's valid throughout the US. Basically, what ever type of murder it would be if you succeeded killing A, you are liable for that same murder if you killed B. So if the manner of killing A was 2nd degree murder, then killing B would also be 2nd degree murder, and if killing A was 1st degree murder, then killing B would be 1st degree murder, and if killing A was manslaughter, killing B would be manslaughter.
    – sharur
    Jul 21, 2020 at 0:16
  • 9
    Exactly. As Wikipedia points out, it's fairly straightforward: Intent follows the bullet.
    – Just a guy
    Jul 21, 2020 at 5:15
  • 18
    @Zibbobz: Yes, if shooting A would have been murder murder, then shooting B was murder. You don't get "legal credit" for being a lousy shot.
    – sharur
    Jul 21, 2020 at 16:08
  • 2
    @Justaguy: I was looking for a way to work that phrase into my answer. Or "intent follows the pressure wave/shrapnel" in this case.
    – sharur
    Jul 21, 2020 at 16:08

To add a perspective from a different legal system:

In Germany, this would fall under the notion of Eventualvorsatz (loosely translated, "recklessness"). Basically, whenever the criminal code requires intent ("Vorsatz" in German), a total lack of consideration for the consequences of an action can be counted as being equivalent to intent. In other words, if I did not specifically intend X, but totally ignore the fact that X is a likely consequence of what I do, that counts as an intentional act. The concept is similar to that of "depraved-heart murder" in US lawThanks to Tiercelet for mentioning this..

A typical example would be setting fire to an inhabited house - while you may not intend to kill the inhabitants, it is still highly likely that they will be killed, so a court might consider this to be (attempted) murder, even absent any explicit intention to kill. For example, in 2015, a firefighter was found guilty of intended murder for setting fire to the building he lived in, because there were other inhabitants - even though his main intention was suicide.

This would probably cover your case - deliberately setting off a bomb in a crowded place is certainly likely to kill, even if that was not your specific goal.

  • 13
    In Germany, there was even a recent murder conviction for an extreme case of speeding (160 km/h in a densely populated city centre).
    – gerrit
    Jul 21, 2020 at 8:09
  • 8
    There was a case in Germany that said putting an abandoned, empty house on fire is attempted murder unless the arsonist checked that there is indeed nobody present. (There could be kids playing, homeless people, drug dealers meeting etc)
    – gnasher729
    Jul 21, 2020 at 14:00
  • 1
    A bomb as in the example would certainly also fall under "mit gemeingefährlichen Mitteln".
    – nvoigt
    May 2 at 12:12

This could fall under the Felony Murder Rule which is a specific type of "transfer of intent" where if someone dies while you are committing (or even aiding in!) a felony you can be guilty of first-degree murder. Some restrictions apply, which depend on jurisdiction, but generally "terrorism" is going to get you every time in the US, and setting a bomb at a crowded music festival would fall under the modern definition of terrorism.

So first-degree murder would apply to anyone who died as a result of this, regardless of how many people you actually intended to harm. In many local jurisdictions it's even looser, even if you didn't intend to harm anyone but only wanted to do extensive property damage, even if your bomb didn't hurt anyone directly but gave someone a heart attack, etc.

Don't kill people. Don't commit felonies. Definitely don't do the two of them at the same time.

  • 15
    An even more extreme example: A robs a bank. During the robbery, a security guard accidentally shoots B. A is guilty of first-degree murder of B by the felony murder rule.
    – Kevin
    Jul 21, 2020 at 16:24
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    I'd like to comment that I feel this rule is extremely stupid, as it transfers the blame of anyone's reckless carelessness like a cop speeding to a "crime" and running over a child. Even if the "criminal's" "felony" was non-violent.
    – Zan Lynx
    Jul 22, 2020 at 2:36
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    @chepner: Felony murder is usually based on being the proximate cause. There is no mens rea component at all, except with respect to the underlying felony.
    – Kevin
    Jul 22, 2020 at 18:52
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    @chepner It's interesting to read about some of the differences in how this is applied in different jurisdictions. IAANAL, but I heard about this in context of the Norco shootout where bank robbers were charged and convicted with murder--of their own accomplice who was shot by a police officer! That was 40 years ago and also kind of an extreme case, one charge in a long rap sheet, but... (Desert Sun, 1982: "charged with murder for allegedly provoking the killing of Belisario Delgado, 17, an alleged accomplice who was killed by a deputy’s shotgun blast as he waited in a getaway van"). Jul 22, 2020 at 19:23
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    @ZanLynx This rule seems to assume good faith on the part of law enforcement and other citizens. Suppose A robs a bank while a non-staff member, B, is within it. If B panics and does something stupid that has poor consequences, this rule might protect B. As far as police doing the right thing, no law could restrain a corrupt police department without intervention of the public.
    – jpaugh
    Jul 23, 2020 at 14:26

Yes, you are responsible for the knock-on effects of your criminal actions, but there’s a line.

For instance suppose you aimed to commit tax fraud by understating your company’s profits in the accounting system. Your limited partner sees those fake numbers, believes they are real, believes this means essential cancer treatments are unaffordable, and commits suicide rather than face a painful and slow death. Did you commit murder? No, courts will generally say not, because the causality chain is simply too weak, too improbable, too Rube Goldberg. Murder is not a foreseeable knock-on effect of tax fraud.

However, if you’re robbing a party store, and shoot a display merely to scare the clerk, and unbeknownst a child was hiding behind the display, that’s murder because it was the product of a serious crime.

The reasoning is that anytime there’s an armed robbery, while murder is not the objective, a killing is a foreseeable risk; and an armed robber reasonably ought to know that and thus is responsible when mayhem does occur. After all, the armed robber had the option to eliminate that risk by not doing an armed robbery.

There’s a parallel concept in civil law, called “Eggshell Skull”: where if your action against someone is a tort, but has knock-on effects you couldn’t possibly imagine... you are still liable for them. There was a famous case where a child kicked another child in class; routine stuff. But

It turned out that the victim had an unknown microbial condition that was irritated, and resulted in him entirely losing the use of his leg. No one could have predicted the level of injury. Nevertheless, the court found that the kicking was unlawful because it violated the "order and decorum of the classroom", and the perpetrator was therefore fully liable for the injury.

Yeah. Don’t kick people in class.


Murder is defined as the unlawful intentional killing of a person, and not the intentional performance of an act which results in an unlawful death. Therefore, if you intend to kill 200,000 people but kill only 1 person, that is 1 count of murder, and if you intend to kill 1 person but do kill 200,000, that is 200,000 counts of murder. You don't even need to intend to kill anyone – you could just intend to main 1 person. The scope of "intend" is with respect to the act, and not the result. If you only intend to rescue some number of people and harm none but do kill someone, you do not have the intent to act unlawfully so it's not murder. However, it could well be some other variety of homicide, since even accidentally killing a person through criminal negligence is a kind of homicide.

  • Wouldn't the method that accidentally killed 200k people be important? Like if you were brawling in the streets and damaged a pipe with your opponent's head, killing him, but the damaged pipe killed everyone in the building because of CO or something, I doubt you would get 1st or 2nd degree murder of all those people. You couldn't have known that your actions would kill them.
    – BlackThorn
    Jul 22, 2020 at 21:22
  • @BlackThorn That gets to the whole thorny issue of legal causality which is incredibly complicated and often very subjective. Jul 24, 2020 at 0:37

As noted in other answers, if you intend to murder the expected occupants of the arena, then you have murdered the others. However there are interesting exceptions...

For one exception, if the intended 60,000 victims in the arena had been legally sentenced to death, and the bomb is the chosen method of execution, then you have not murdered them. Execution is lawful killing and is not murder. And for another exception, if the victims are all members of the armed forces whose country is at war with yours, then again killing soldiers in a war is not murder, even if they happen to kicking back at a festival. In an exception to the exception though, if the execution victims were having a last visit from their families when the bomb was set off, or the soldiers had their families with them, then the 60,000 family members would have been murdered but the intended victims would not have been.

You might also not be guilty of murder if you didn't know you were planting a bomb (maybe you thought you were just leaving a backpack for a friend who works there), or if you didn't know that the button you were pressing would set off a bomb. There are various interesting novels (Charles Stross's Rule 34 springs to mind) about conspiracies recruiting "useful idiots" where each one carries out part of the overall plan, and each individual step does not appear controversial but the end result is fatal.

If you can think of a scenario where planting a bomb would be lawful self-defence then that too could stop this being murder, although honestly I'm not sure how you'd justify that!

  • If any country or state needs to execute 60,000 prisoners, there are probably bigger problems to worry about than the legality of the bomber.
    – Nelson
    Jul 22, 2020 at 2:38
  • @Nelson Definitely! But that's why they're interesting exceptions, even if they may only apply to North Korea.
    – Graham
    Jul 22, 2020 at 8:20

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