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For example, suppose an attacker is chasing a victim with a knife and the intention to kill. While running away, the victim falls, hitting their head, and dies.

Assuming there is clear evidence for the the attacker's intentions and how the victim died, can the attacker be charged with or convicted of murder?

I could see them being charged with murder because their actions led to the person's death. But I could also see the charges being limited to attempted murder since the attacker didn't directly cause the victim to fall. Or maybe they would be charged with both attempted murder and manslaughter?

If it varies by state, I will limit this to whether this would constitute murder in Utah or California.

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  • 59
    Sing along, to the tune of "That's amore": "When you chase them with a knife, and it costs them their life, that's a murder. When intent was to kill, and they pay their final bill, that's a murder. If they'd still be alive, had you not shown your knife, that's a murder. If you caused mortal fear, and their soul's departed here, that's....a... mur...der!!" Sep 16 at 9:39
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    @MichaelSeifert Is there any state where this wouldn't be a murder? I know there's some subtle differences among the various states in the US, but I feel like this case would be pretty unambiguous wherever you are... Sep 16 at 13:27
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    @DarrelHoffman: I had the "felony murder" concept in the back of my head, where you can effectively be charged with premeditated murder if someone dies in the commission of another crime, even if you didn't intend to kill them. But in the given scenario you did have intent, and so upon further reflection I expect it would be straight-up murder in most jurisdictions. Sep 16 at 13:35
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    Wait! Your goal was to kill them, and with that in mind, you do something to them, and it makes them die. How is that a "fail?" Was it maybe a problem that they died in the wrong place? at the wrong time? Did it fail on aesthetic grounds? Did it fail to be a sufficiently dire warning to other people who can't seem to keep their noses out of your business? Sep 16 at 15:22
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    @Kostas I'm honestly offended by that. My wife and I were watching Monk where murder happens in lots of odd ways, and there was an episode where a victim was being chased, and my wife wondered whether falling and dying while being chased would count as murder. I thought that was an interesting legal question, so I asked it. I asked it broadly, but the comments suggested I pick a particular state since criminal law varies across states. So I picked Utah because I live there and I'm curious about the law where I live, and I picked California because Monk is set in San Francisco
    – T Hummus
    Sep 17 at 18:07
30

You intended to kill them, you killed them, that's murder

California Penal Code Section 187(a):

Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.

California Penal Code Section 188(a)(1):

Malice is express when there is manifested a deliberate intention to unlawfully take away the life of a fellow creature.


If this weren't the case, one could nitpick the cause of death almost endlessly. For instance, what if you stabbed them nearly to death, they were almost saved by a surgeon, but then they died of an infection that they acquired in the hospital? The law's solution is simple: if you not only killed them, but you also intended to kill them before doing so, that's murder.

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16

That’s murder

Crimes Act 1900 s18:

Murder shall be taken to have been committed where the act of the accused, or thing by him or her omitted to be done, causing the death charged, was done or omitted with reckless indifference to human life, or with intent to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm upon some person, or done in an attempt to commit, or during or immediately after the commission, by the accused, or some accomplice with him or her, of a crime punishable by imprisonment for life or for 25 years.

The act of chasing the victim with intent to kill caused the death. QED.

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    @Michaels "the act performed (chasing) didn't have the intent to kill". This is highly problematic reasoning. Intent is never found in the act, it is found in the defendant's state of mind. In a prosecution these elements are always proven separately. So, first we prove that the knife chasing caused the death. Then, as a totally separate exercise, we prove that the defendant intended to kill. We do not have have prove that the defendant intended to kill by causing the victim to trip and hit their head.
    – JBentley
    Sep 16 at 5:57
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    @JBentley: If I plot to assassinate Bob, then run a red light on my way to Bob's house and accidentally hit and kill Bob with my car, it's unlikely anyone would consider that murder. The intent was completely irrelevant to the act. If I stab someone which results in them eventually bleeding out, the intent was directly relevant. In our case, the only act done with intent is chasing. The victim wasn't actually stabbed, so the intent isn't directly relevant to the death. The knife chasing caused the death. But it didn't do so intentionally.
    – MichaelS
    Sep 16 at 6:05
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    @michael My point is that the defendant doesn't have to intend that that exact action, and only that action, will cause the death. It is sufficient that he does some action X, the purpose of him doing X is to kill, and as a result of him doing X, the person dies. For example, if I thrust the sharp end of the knife at you intending to kill, but I miss and instead the blunt end hits you on the head and you die, I'm not going to avoid a murder charge because I didn't intend to kill you with the blunt end. It is enough that as I thrust the knife, I had it in my mind that I wanted you to die.
    – JBentley
    Sep 16 at 6:25
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    @MichaelS I take your point, but in practice that reasoning doesn't work. For example I can extend your logic to say that as I thrust the knife, my intention isn't to kill, it is to get the sharp end of the knife closer to you. Therefore when the blunt end kills you as I make the sharp end travel towards you I have not comitted murder because my act only intends to kill at the exact moment the sharp end pierces your skin. In reality, we don't break down intention into such small fragments. It is sufficient that as you chase the victim with the knife, you have an immediate intention to kill.
    – JBentley
    Sep 16 at 7:43
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    @MichaelS If it helps to convince you, this isn't just theoretical. For example Smith and Hogan's Criminal law (the leading criminal law text in E&W) 14th ed at page 108 states: "A long line of cases has established that D will be held to have caused death or injury by so frightening V that V has jumped from a window or a car or behaved in some other manner dangerous to himself. If D's unlawful conduct has prompted the response from V, D will remain liable if V's reaction was within the range of responses which might be expected from a victim in his situation".
    – JBentley
    Sep 16 at 8:05
16

You're describing a murder

In English Law, the act of running from an attacker would be entirely within the realms of 'causation' (e.g. the attack caused them to escape) and is explicitly called out in case law as one of the things that an attacker would expect their victim to do in self-defence, hence remaining part of the attacker's responsibility.

Per the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) guidance on Homicide;

To break the "chain of causation" an intervening act must be such that it becomes the sole cause of the victim's death so as to relieve the defendant of liability - see R v Wallace (Berlinah) [2018] EWCA Crim 690; R v Kennedy (Simon) [2008] Crim. L.R. 222. Examples of intervening acts are:
...
An act of the victim if not within the range of response which might be anticipated from a victim in his situation: R v Roberts (1972) 56 Cr App R 95 and R v Williams Davis 1992 CLR 198.

In both the cases cited above, the victim of a violent assault attempted to flee and were injured during their attempt to escape. The aggressor was deemed to be accountable as this was a predictable chain of causation.

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  • Ive added some more info on English law in my answer too
    – Stilez
    Sep 17 at 3:23
  • As I understand, the causation aspect of it is why Self Defense is an Affirmative Defense? (i.e. the potential victim has a Duty to Retreat (At least in U.S. law, generally, ignoring Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine), and if the attacker made someone retreat to an area they could not retreat, the fleer isn't at fault for attacking with intent to harm in same degree of violence? Sep 17 at 4:52
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    @Alexanderthe1st - Yes. The attacker is also responsible for 1) An escalation of violence that occurs as a result of the individual defending themselves, 2) Harm that occurs to the victim as a result of medical treatment, even where the harm is caused by medical negligence 3) Injury to the individual even if the individual has a prior condition that makes them prone to injury.
    – Richard
    Sep 17 at 6:16
  • I assume this is for England and Wales, since they are very closely aligned in such matters. DO you know if it's different for Scotland/Northern Island, by any chance?
    – Sam OT
    Sep 18 at 20:36
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    @SamOT - Pretty much identical as far as I'm aware. Not to be confused with Culpable Homicide (which is basically a fancy version of manslaughter)
    – Richard
    Sep 18 at 20:41
8

This will depend upon the legality of your actions so far, and how closely they are related to the death.

For instance, if you were chasing that person with the intent to kidnap them, torture and then kill them, it’s going to be murder because you are committing a crime and they die because of that.

If instead, you called and invited them to your house with the intent to do the same thing, and they get hit by a bus on the way, you haven’t yet committed an illegal act and you are free and clear (albeit disappointed that you didn’t get to torture them first).

So, the key question is going to be did they die as a result of a crime you committed, and how closely that crime was related to their death.

4

What you describe could be construed as felony murder in it is a death that happened during the committing of a felony. You were in the process of assaulting the victim and then he slipped and hit his head against a rock and died from that. In some states felony murder carries the death penalty like Nevada for instance. Intentions are pretty clear, you don't chase a person with a knife if you intend to do no harm.

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4

Also in English Law, the rule is, if you intended serious harm to a person, and a person dies because of it, that's murder. This definition means that:

  1. You didnt need to intend their death. Its enough to prove you intended to do them serious harm, and they died as a result of what you did. That's murder.
  2. It doesnt have to be the same person. If you intended serious harm to person A, but because of your actions a different person B died, thats murder as well.

So if you punch someone hard enough, and they fall and die, the question will be whether you knew or should have known it was likely to do "serious harm", or would do it, or whether you intended "serious harm". (Sometimes the courts emphasise the criterion by describing it as "really serious harm" when talking to a jury.)

Also if you mean to kill, or even "seriously harm", one person, and a different person dies - a bystander, or wrong victim - dies, thats murder too.

In both cases, the "chain of causation" in Richard's answer is used to decide if the death was, or was not, a result of your actions, or resulted legally from some other cause.

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  • These are all correct for English law but not really relevant to the OP's scenario because the hypothetical defendant did intend death (so it's not necessary to discuss intention to harm) and there was no transferred malice to a different person B. The answer to the OP's question mainly involves consideration of the law on factual causation and reaction of the victim. Legal causation and intention are part of premise of the question.
    – JBentley
    Sep 17 at 7:26
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    Sure. A bit of extra background can help, since the underlying question is clearly more about exploring what constitutes murder anyway, notwithstanding it picks one clear example to.test the water.....
    – Stilez
    Sep 17 at 7:37
2

Also applies to injuries and in tort law. See the eggshell skull rule.

Which says that if you intend to do a harm, "the unexpected frailty of the injured person is not a valid defense to the seriousness of any injury caused to them."

So even if you manage to escape the murder charge, O.J. Simpson style, the victim's family gets another bite at the apple, in civil court. And there, they get to use all the evidence from the criminal trial, but the standard of proof is only "more likely than not" i.e. 51% likely. Since all the evidence has already been vetted by the criminal court, it is "shooting fish in a barrel" for the civil plaintiffs.

So you will end up bankrupt and a pauper for the rest of your life, and even worse, you will have to live in Florida if you want to accumulate wealth via home equity, it being the only state that protects unlimited equity in a homestead. That is why OJ lives there.

"Rest of your life" because bankruptcy doesn't clear liabilities from intentional crimes.

Think about that. You get in a quarrel with someone and push them against the wall and yell at them, and they have a record of being extremely prudent about COVID precautions so it 51% more likely than not their fatal case came from you... boom, wrongful death. You could not have imagined they were not vaccinated, nor that you even had COVID.

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  • "You will have to live in Florida" Or move to a country that doesn't respect US civil judgments. Sep 17 at 20:01
  • @Harper - Reinstate Monica "Live in Florida"? NO WAY!! Doesn't the US have a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment?
    – emory
    Sep 18 at 23:18

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