Lear v. State (1931)

US Criminal Law

Lear v. State
‘Buchanan General Store’ by David Boyd

Theft without violence or fear of violence upon the victim cannot constitute robbery, as was demonstrated in this simple case of taking without a vendor’s consent in 1931.

Having entered the store of a Buckeye resident at the point of their opening it, the appellant took the opportunity to make off with a bag containing $33 while the shopkeeper was attending another task nearby, after which he was later arrested and confessed to stealing the money.

Indicted in the Superior Court of Maricopa County, the appellant was then charged and convicted of robbery under § 4602 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, which read that:

“Robbery is the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear. The fear may be either of an unlawful injury to the person or property of the person robbed, or of a relative or member of his family; or of an immediate and unlawful injury to the person or property of any one in the company of the person robbed at the time of the robbery.”

However the appellant challenged the judgment in the Arizona Supreme Court on grounds that there was insufficient evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that he had subjected the vendor to any form of physical struggle, or that he had even uttered a single word to him during the act, whereupon the court sought clarification on the definition of robbery, and so turned to the English case of R. v Thomas Gnosil, in which the Court of Assizes had held that:

“[T]he force used must be either before, or at the time of the taking, and must be of such a nature as to shew that it was intended to overpower the party robbed, and prevent his resisting, and not merely to get possession of the property stolen.”

And to State v. Parsons, where the Washington Supreme Court had also held that:

“[I]t is not robbery to merely snatch from the hand or person of another, or to surreptitiously take from another’s pocket, money or some other thing of value, as such taking lacks the element of force, or putting in fear, one or the other of which being essential to constitute the crime of burglary.”

While the court further noted that § 649a of Grigsby’s Criminal Law stated that:

“No sudden taking unawares from the person, even done with force, as by snatching a thing from one’s hand, or out of his pocket, is sufficient to constitute robbery.”

Therefore the court held with considerable certainty that although the vendor had been cause distress as a result of his pecuniary loss, the appellant had on this occasion, been deft enough to avoid confrontation, and so the court reversed the previous judgment and remanded the case back to the superior court while holding that:

“The mere taking of property in possession of another, from his person or immediate presence and against his will, is not robbery. Such taking must be accomplished by force or fear to constitute robbery.”

R v Williams (Barry Anthony) (1991)

English Criminal Law

Williams (Barry Anthony)
‘Glastonbury Mud at Sunset’ by Kurt Jackson

The importance, if not imperative demonstration of causation lies at the heart of a case in which a jury was led to believe that manslaughter by way of robbery was unquestionably evident, when in fact the circumstances behind the event were such that prevented any reasonable direction, or sustainable conviction thereafter.

In June of 1989, the appellant was driving a vehicle with two passengers when a hitch-hiker attempted to obtain a lift to Glastonbury Festival. Having entered the car, the now deceased was subjected to what was held as a pre-meditated robbery attempt, during which he threw himself from the vehicle at speed, an action that resulted in severe head trauma and his subsequent death.

Upon indictment to the Bristol Crown Court, the appellant and the co-defendants were accused of threatening the victim so as to take all of his money, whereupon he had reluctantly offered to pay a nominal sum to the appellant rather than risk suffering possible violence while travelling inside the car.

Despite a lack of causative evidence aside from the witness testimonies of the three men accused, the presiding judge explained to the jury that:

“[W]hat he was frightened of was robbery, that this [money] was going to be taken from him by force, and the measure of the force can be taken from his reaction to it. The prosecution suggest that if he is prepared to get out of a moving car, then it was a very serious threat involving him in the risk of, as he saw it, serious injury.”

And so when reaching a verdict, the jury held that two of the men were guilty of manslaughter, with the appellant found to have been the one threatening the victim shortly before his death, a decision which was challenged in the Court of Appeal on grounds of misdirection and lack of causation between the actual threat and subsequent death.

Here the court turned to R v Roberts, in which the Court of Appeal had held that:

“[I]f of course the victim does something so “daft,” in the words of the appellant in this case, or so unexpected, not that this particular assailant did not actually foresee it but that no reasonable man could be expected to foresee it, then it is only in a very remote and unreal sense a consequence of his assault, it is really occasioned by a voluntary act on the part of the victim which could not reasonably be foreseen and which breaks the chain of causation between the assault and the harm or injury.”

While in R v Mackie, the court had further held that:

“Where the injuries are fatal, the [escape] attempt must be the natural consequence of an unlawful act and that unlawful act ‘must be such as all sober and reasonable people would inevitably recognise must subject the other person to, at least, the risk of some harm resulting therefrom, albeit not serious harm’….”

A fact that on this occasion, was far from proven, but instead relied upon the urgency of the judge when directing the jury. This translated that the court was unable to sustain the previous verdict of either count, as neither robbery nor manslaughter had been proven beyond any reasonable doubt, therefore the appeal was allowed in full, while the court held that in matters of manslaughter:

“[T]he nature of the threat is of importance in considering both the foreseeability of harm to the victim from the threat and the question whether the deceased’s conduct was proportionate to the threat….”

Coleman v. State (1995)

US Criminal Law

Coleman v. State
‘Criminal Type’ by Jeremy Norton

When an alleged robbery resulted in threatening behaviour, the defendant argued that absence of evidence to support the initial act reduced the charge to one of theft under Indiana State law.

Having stolen five rolls of camera film from a Muncie supermarket, the defendant was seen taking the items by a single witness, who after the defendant had left the store, indirectly notified the store manager, who then confronted the defendant outside on the pavement.

In response to his challenge, the defendant brandished a knife and threatened the manager, after which the manager stood down and retreated back inside the shop, only for the State police to arrest the defendant when he somewhat naively returned to the scene of the crime.

Convicted of robbery before a Delaware Circuit Court jury, the Court of Appeals of Indiana Second District reversed the judgment on grounds that § 35-42-5-1 of the Indiana Code defines robbery as present when:

“A person who knowingly or intentionally takes property from another person or from the presence of another person:

(1) By using or threatening the use of force on any person; or

(2) By putting any person in fear….”

And that in Eckelberry v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court had previously held that:

“The force necessary to constitute robbery must be employed before the property is stolen. If the stealing be first, and the force afterwards, the offense is not robbery, but stealing from the person.”

After which the case was heard again before the Indiana Supreme Court, who reviewed their position with regard to the defendant leaving the property after the threatening behaviour, further noting that in Paul v. State the court had ruled a store clerk as solely responsible for the contents stolen, and so a conviction of robbery could lawfully stand.

It also noted that in Eckelberry, the court had concluded that when the defendant injured their victim immediately after taking their property, the two events were merely equal parts of the same act, therefore the court reversed the appeal court decision and upheld the robbery charge in full.

Adams v. People (1884)

US Criminal Law

Adams v. People
Image: ‘Railway Carriages’ by Vincent Van Gogh

Conspiracy to rob and the causation of death, while both separate in their context, are brought together to when a jury determines a sustainable conviction, despite the absence of witnesses and minimal evidence with which to rely upon.

In 1883, four men were found guilty of wanton killing after colluding in their pursuit of depriving strangers of their personal belongings on a train carriage in Madison county, Indiana. This criminal activity ultimately resulted in the death of a single victim, which while itself was exempt from first-hand witness testimony, nonetheless left the jury satisfied enough to pass a verdict for murder.

In response, two of the defendants sought a continuance of proceedings for the unheard testimony of two key witnesses who had failed to show on the day of the trial. Having been presented to the Supreme Court of Illinois, the judge recounted the events preceding the victim’s death, while noting the defendants contention with previous jury instructions.

While the defendants had robbed two individuals at gunpoint, the first of them had been forced to jump from the moving rail carriage, after which he came across the body of the second victim further along the rail lines. His death had been caused through the crushing of his skull, but there was nothing to otherwise indicate exactly how he had died, except by an assumption that once robbed, he too had been forced to jump from the carriage, or had been murdered and thrown, neither of which could be proven first-hand.

When instructing the jury, the trial judge had remarked that:

“[I]f defendants did, by threats of violence to the person, intimidation, or by displaying deadly weapons in a threatening manner, cause the said Patrick Knight to leap or jump from the car while in motion….and thereby he was killed, as charged in the indictment, and if the jury so believe, from the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that such are the facts, they should find the defendants guilty.”

Further adding:

“[T]hat if the defendants conspired to rob Patrick Knight, and with the intent to conceal said crime of robbery did force him to jump….they should find the defendants guilty.”

Here, the defendants argued that there was a lack of evidence upon which to determine that the men charged were guilty of the crime both alleged and now convicted, and thus pleaded for a continuance, so as to enable the depositions of the witnesses unrepresented.

With reference to the charge, the court explained that under Illinois statute the definition of murder was:

“The unlawful killing of a human being, in the peace of the people, with malice aforethought, either express or implied. Malice shall be implied where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

And that:

“Provided, always, that where such involuntary killing shall happen in the commission of an unlawful act, which, in its consequences, naturally tends to destroy the life of a human being, or is committed in the prosecution of a felonious intent, the offence shall be deemed and adjudged to be murder.”

While in regard to the victims expulsion from the carriage, s.142 of ‘Greenleaf on Evidence’ stressed that:

“Forcing a person to do an act which causes his death, renders the death the guilty deed of him who compelled the deceased to do the act.”

While s.147 added that:

“Malice may be proved by evidence of gross recklessness of human life, where, in any manner, the life of another is knowingly, cruelly and grossly endangered, whether by actual violence, or by inhuman privation or exposure, and death is caused thereby.”

Thus the court held that regardless of the doubts cast by the defendants, where a jury is satisfied beyond any reasonable doubt as the warrant of a conviction, it is beyond the power of the court to interfere with that decision, despite the indignations of the accused, upon which the original judgment was upheld.