R v Jordan (1956)

English Criminal Law

R v Jordan
‘Jury’ by Norman Rockwell

Jury conviction beyond any reasonable doubt can often prove protracted and not without its tenuous merits, however on this occasion the determination that murder was the unequivocal cause of death is brought into stark controversy, when the introduction of alternate medical evidence casts serious doubts upon exactly what happened in the time prior to the victim’s death.

In May 1956, the appellant American Serviceman and three other men were embroiled in a fracas when during the disagreement, the appellant stabbed one of those involved, after which the victim later died of broncho-pneumonia whilst recovering in hospital, and upon which the appellant was indicted for murder and found guilty in Leeds Assizes before being sentenced to death.

Under appeal, an investigation by the American authorities revealed new evidence put forward by two highly reputable medical doctors, and which cited that the cause of death was actually related to the administration of terramycin, a commonly prescribed antibiotic that on this occasion, had triggered and allergic reaction that in turn led to diarrhoea, and which was further exacerbated through its continued administration, despite immediate instructions to cease its use.

In addition to this, hospital staff had also intravenously introduced disproportionate doses of saline, which likewise resulted in a pulmonary oedema through waterlogged lungs, a condition that left untreated, causes broncho-pneumonia, and upon which it had been established as the direct cause of death, while the stab wound itself had since been shown to have healed with no known complications.

Faced with such weighty and compelling testimony, the Criminal Court of Appeal turned to a number of distinguishable cases before relying upon R v Harding, in which it had earlier held that:

“Acquittal must follow if the evidence is such as to cause a reasonable doubt, because that is only another way of saying that the prosecution have failed to establish the case.”

Therefore when giving consideration to the effect that this information would have upon a criminal jury, the court deliberated in saying that when faced with such acute medical facts they saw no reason to suspect that the murder conviction would have been rendered unsustainable, and so with little more to debate the appeal was allowed and the conviction set aside in full, while the court reminded the parties that under normal circumstances:

“[D]eath resulting from any normal treatment employed to deal with a felonious injury may be regarded as caused by the felonious injury.”  

R v Blaue (1975)

English Criminal Law

R v Blaue
‘King Mannaseh’ by Unknown Artist

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.