The right to manifest one’s religious beliefs, and the right to prove ‘novus actus interveniens’ within a criminal trial are equally valid, and yet when brought together, the finer points of law and natural justice must always prevail.
In spring of 1974, the victim and now deceased, was a young eighteen year-old Jehovah’s witness, who by all accounts, considered herself a devout worshipper, and one clearly unafraid of death. While resting at home, the appellant appeared before her and demanded sexual intercourse. After refusing to comply with his demands, the appellant stabbed her four times before fleeing the property. When found staggering in the street outside, the victim was rushed to hospital, before being diagnosed as having a punctured lung and suffering severe blood loss.
In order to perform the required surgery, the surgical registrar confirmed that she would need an immediate blood transfusion, at which point the deceased explained that due to her religious disciplines, she would be unable to receive foreign blood, and that despite knowing the potential, if not unavoidable outcome, she was unwilling to accept the help offered.
Before passing, the deceased also acknowledged such a position in writing, and so at trial the appellant had argued that the charge of murder be reduced to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility when refusing to accept the transfusion.
Relying upon R v Smith to establish the possibility that her refusal of help had caused her own death, and that such an unreasonable act had broken the chain of causation, the judge directed the jury so as to ask themselves if, by virtue of her religious confines, the deceased had in fact been the primary contributor of her own death, or that despite her painful and somewhat illogical choices, the stab wound itself had caused her to die, and that anything afterwards was merely academic.
After returning a verdict in favour of the deceased, the appellant appealed, after which the Court of Appeal reminded them that a long established principle of common law, as was written in ‘Hale’s Pleas of the Crown’ (1800) was that:
“He who inflicted an injury which resulted in death could not excuse himself by pleading that his victim could have avoided death by taking greater care of himself…”
It was thus established and held, that that the primary cause of death was bleeding into the pleural cavity of the lung, and that any decision taken after the fact was secondary to the victim’s passing; and that regardless of the role in which religion played, the deceased was entitled to express that belief as she saw fit. It was for this fundamental reason that the appeal was dismissed and the murder charge upheld.