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Say the following situation occurs:

A sadistic murderer kidnaps you and 2 other people. They tell you to pick one of the two other people, and the person you did not pick will be killed. You have 30 seconds, and if you give no answer, both people will be killed.

Are you guilty of any crimes if you pick a person? What if you pick no one in the 30 seconds? Does the situation change if after the 30 seconds, all 3 of you will be killed?

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Duress is a defense to crimes in most jurisdictions. This circumstance (you have been kidnapped and are falsely imprisoned by a murderer who has indicated a present intent to kill someone) would constitute duress. You would not have criminal liability in those jurisdictions.

Some, but fewer jurisdictions than those that recognize a duress defense, also recognize a choice of evils defense. This defense might be applicable in this situation as well. But it could apply in a situation when you were not kidnapped but the bad guy called you and posed this question to you.

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  • As your link states, duress is often not a defense to murder even if it's a defense to other crimes in a jurisdiction. That may be worth mentioning.
    – D M
    Jun 5, 2023 at 3:58
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Possibly you are guilty of "incitement" (or similar name depending on jurisdiction). For example, it is a crime if you tell a person "You should kill Smith". The exact wording is not important, so if they ask "Who should I kill", saying "Smith" would be encouraging a crime. You don't actually know the future so you just have a weak reason to believe that both people will die is you don't make a choice in 30 seconds (you have a stronger reason to think that this is an ethics class hoax). There is no legal principle that says "a crime that reduces the number of victims is not a crime", but you can hope for mercy from the jury. You might advance a "defense of others" defense. The answer ultimately depends on jurisdiction (what constitutes "aiding" a crime; in what circumstance can you commit a crime in aid of others).

In California, PC 31 states:

All persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether it be felony or misdemeanor, and whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense, or aid and abet in its commission, or, not being present, have advised and encouraged its commission ...to commit any crime... are principals in any crime so committed.

653f(b)PC, the solicitation statute, says

Every person who, with the intent that the crime be committed, solicits another to commit or join in the commission of murder shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for three, six, or nine years.

Presumably the defendant would argue that they did not intend that one party be killed, but that seems like a dubious claim. As noted by this attorney, "Wrongful intent doesn't mean that you have to intend to break the law. Sometimes people act with good intentions. Even good intentions can be criminal intent because they show that you intended to commit the prohibited act".

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  • Ethics class professors, as far as I know, haven't started to kidnap people yet.
    – xngtng
    Dec 6, 2021 at 21:54
  • "It is a crime if you tell a person 'You should kill Smith'" I'm not aware of any jurisdiction in which this alone would constitute a crime. Could you give an example (and what crime exactly it is)?
    – Ryan M
    Dec 8, 2021 at 0:54
  • I propose that instead you give me a jurisdiction that interests you and I'll tell you the specific law.
    – user6726
    Dec 8, 2021 at 5:56
  • Fair: I'm in California, so that would interest me.
    – Ryan M
    Dec 9, 2021 at 23:52
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    "you have a stronger reason to think that this is an ethics class hoax" - But then nobody will be killed no matter what I say. I don't think it's logical to think "this person will kill the person I name, just like he said, but also isn't going to kill both of them if I name nobody, contrary to what he said."
    – D M
    Jun 5, 2023 at 3:58

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