R v Haigh

R v Haigh

As is peculiar to criminal law in most jurisdictions, the necessary component for murder requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of the both the act itself (actus reus), and the subjective intention (mens rea) of those accused, and so on this occasion the English criminal courts were left with no option other than to reduce a murder sentence to manslaughter, on grounds that there was simply insufficient evidence to adduce deliberate and unlawful killing, as opposed to what could only be construed as a momentary loss of control on the part of the defendant.

Having been born to unloving and thus dysfunctional parents, the appellant had been later adopted by a well educated and devoted couple when aged only eight years of age, and whose only wish was for her to have a better life than the one she had left behind. Sadly during her adolescence, the appellant was further diagnosed with an IQ of just 74, a personality disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prolonged depression, for which she was on prescribed medication.

After meeting her former partner at the young age of sixteen, the appellant soon became pregnant, and gave birth to their son Billy two years later, and although the two of them remained together for a further three years, her partner was eventually incarcerated for assaulting her; an act which had followed years of his routine verbal and physical abuse towards her both before, and after, their son’s arrival.

At the point of her indictment before the Central Criminal Court, the appellant was reported to have called the ambulance services complaining that her son had stopped breathing, and yet despite clear instructions to perform emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) at the time of the call, her son was pronounced dead almost five hours later; after which it was claimed by court that the appellant had murdered her son by way of asphyxiation, and that there was sufficient medical evidence upon which to sustain the conviction; whereupon the appellant challenged the verdict in the Court of Appeals.

Here, the appellant contended that when reaching summary judgment, the trial court had erroneously accepted circumstantial evidence relating to previous interactions with her son, and which presented her in a poor light, however the court referred to R v Penman, in which the deciding court had held that:

“[W]here it is necessary to place before the jury evidence of part of a continual background of history relevant to the offence charged in the indictment and without the totality of which the account placed before the jury would be incomplete or incomprehensible, then the fact that the whole account involves including evidence establishing the commission of an offence with which the accused is not charged is not of itself a ground for excluding the evidence.”

R v Penman

Thus the first aspect of her appeal was denied, while on a second count, the appellant claimed that lack of witness testimony, and only one physical symptom of trauma, prevented the court from establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that she had intended to murder, or at the very least unlawfully kill her son in the moments before his death.

Here the court was reliant upon the presence of petechial haemorrhaging upon her child’s face, which in most instances was attributable to asphyxial death. However, there was also theoretical argument that prolonged resuscitation could also prove a contributory factor; yet further circumstantial evidence proposed this as incredible, based upon the appellant’s refusal to perform CPR whilst waiting for the ambulance crew to arrive, and via witness testimony citing visible evidence of the symptoms upon their arrival.

In addition to this, there was further evidence of bleeding from the child’s ears, which according to expert medical testimony, had often been found present when addressing traumatic asphyxiation cases in which young children had become trapped in washing lines, a  fact which only exacerbated the suggestion that the appellant had either strangled or smothered her son whilst alone with him, therefore the court held that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to determine that the appellant had unlawfully killed her child.

This left only the third count, which was that a murder conviction was unsafe due to the first two factors, and that there was simply no direct evidence to support the contention that the appellant had wilfully and with malice, killed her child, but that instead, the best the court could hope to rely upon was a manslaughter charge; an argument that caused the court to uphold the third ground of appeal before quashing the murder conviction on grounds that in R v Stacey it had held that:

“[A]n intent to do serious bodily harm may be quickly formed and soon regretted; but so may a less serious intent, simply to stop a child crying by handling him in a way that any responsible adult would realise would cause serious damage or certainly might do so. That would only provide the mental element necessary for manslaughter.”

R v Miller

Actus reus and mens rea, are two very widely used criminal law maxims that once were essential for the clarification of intention, but sadly over the passage of time, the former has become victim to legal abuses by lawyers seeking to bend a virtue that perhaps warrants review after hundreds of years of application.

In this matter, the accused was a homeless man, who after drinking a reasonable amount of alcohol, entered a vacant home, before taking up occupancy in an empty room. After lighting a cigarette, he then fell asleep on a mattress, at which point the cigarette began to ignite the mattress fibres, thereby causing it to slowly smoulder.

Upon waking, the appellant saw what was happening, but chose to simply get up from the mattress and walk into an adjacent room, before returning to sleep. It was not until the arrival of the local fire brigade, that he awoke again to discover that the room he had since left was now ablaze, and that significant fire damage had resulted from his failure to extinguish the burning mattress.

Upon summary, the appellant stood accused of recklessness causing criminal damage to another’s property, that in turn led to a conviction of arson under s.1(1)(3) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. While under appeal, it was argued that both mens rea and actus reus are key elements to a criminal conviction, and that because the appellant had left the room, he could not be found liable through inaction, as opposed to action (actus reus), while further arguing that he was under no obligation to extinguish the burning mattress, and that his mens rea was ultimately irrelevant to the proceeding fire.

The crux of this defence misdirection is that while actus reus explores the actions of a defendant, the reality of life is that inaction by its own virtue, is an equally destructive process when the party in question can see very clearly that it was his previous actions that initiated the root offence, and that there were sufficient steps available to the defendant to prevent the damage from spreading (including seeking the assistance of third parties to that effect). Therefore, a defence based upon the interpretation of a word does nothing to circumvent the social responsibility of those faced with potentially (yet avoidable) damaging situations.

While the appeal was dismissed, it was again put before the House of Lords who listened intently to a bargaining application for the quashing of an arson charge, before succinctly explaining that with no quarter for doubt, it was evident that the appellant had elected to recklessly avoid his personal obligation to prevent the fire from growing, in favour of distancing himself from his original action, regardless of the foreseeable consequences that followed.