Since World War II in 1945, there has been a continued controversy regarding capital punishment in the UK. Various abolishment campaigns were actually launched after the war and the Homicide Act was passed in 1957. The Act introduced restrictions to the capital punishment law in an attempt to reserve the punishment in law for those who actually deserve it. However, several controversies erupted after the review and there was widespread dissatisfaction from the public regarding murder laws. In fact, convictions in capital punishment became less common. The last persons to face the murder law in Britain were executed in 1964. After continued campaigns from various human rights groups, the death penalty was abolished in 1999 when Home Secretary signed the 6th protocol of European Convention of Human Rights. The main debate has been that capital punishment denies a person a right to life, which is a democratic right of any individual. However, crime is everywhere and there is always loss of life due to criminal activities or in most cases psychological torture and decrease in the quality of life. Some of these crimes include rape, murder and terrorism, just to name a few. This paper will evaluate various contexts of the current murder law in the UK to assess its acceptability.
Elements of criminal liability
Generally, the basis of liability imposition on a criminal is that there must be enough proof that the defendant is guilty of committing a criminal offence while in a guilty state of mind. This comprises of physical elements known as actus reus followed by the mental state referred to as mens rea. The prosecution has a fundamental duty to verify proof of these elements in the offence to the level that satisfies the judge or the jury beyond doubt. If the is no sufficient proof, the jury is required to acquit the defendant. The two elements are used to analyze criminal offences in the English law. They stipulate that a defendant is not necessarily guilt unless he or she committed crime with a guilty mind.
The actus reus constitutes more than just a mere act. It determines whether the circumstances and the consequences of the crime are recognized for prove of liability of the criminal offence under evaluation. This simply means that every element of the offence apart from the mental element is encompassed by the actus reus. It is the external or physical element of a criminal offence and is the Latin word for “guilty act”. Therefore, if the defendant did something amounting to criminal offence, there are other situations of omission that may be sufficient for actus reus. However, under normal rule, omission cannot guarantee that the defendant is guilty of an offence. However, a criminal offender may incur criminal liability if the crime was committed as a positive act, for example, forcefully holding the head of another person in water leading to his or her death. In case of a stranger who watches as a victim drowns without intervening, the stranger would not incur criminal liability since the victim would have whatsoever.
On the other hand, mens rea literally means a guilty mind contrary to actus reus which means guilty act. In any offence, both of these elements must be present for proof of criminal liability. The idea of fault proven resides in the mind of the offender when he or she is committing the criminal act. Most notably, the actual state of mind required may vary from one crime to another. For instance, in murder and manslaughter, the intention to kill must be proved for imposition of criminal liability. The only exception to this principle is the strict liability concept. Here, no mens rea is required to be proved prior to one or more elements of the actus reus. The rationale of mens rea is whether the crime was committed as voluntary action, intentionally or with knowledge of all elements of the crime.
Voluntariness, causation and omission in actus reus
Under actus reus, there are concepts of voluntariness and causation besides the previously discussed omission. In the features of Actus reus, a murder must be a voluntary act and in some cases, there must a consequence of the offence. For example, in other offences such as assault that results in actual bodily harm, there must be visible injuries inflicted on the plaintiff. The law of causation in actus reus stipulates that an act must cause the result. It shows that death would not have results were it not for the conduct of the defendant. However, irrational application of this rule can lead to unjust rulings hence legal causation is established before the defendant is convicted of murder. It means that the conduct that led to the plaintiff’s death must be worth of blame. Nevertheless, there are difficult questions that arise regarding where to draw the line but the extremes are clear. For example, if someone invites the other to dinner and the invitee is run over by a car on his way to the dinner, it would be absurd to claim that the inviter is guilty of murder. A guilty case of causation would be an individual who points a gun at another with an intention of killing him and eventually pulls the trigger. His conduct has undoubtedly caused the death of the victim and both factual and legal causation are obvious.
Actus reus omissions are only viable when there is a duty to act. In English law, a defendant can be found to be criminally liable if he has failed to act in places where he or she has a duty to act. For example, a railway employee who opens a railway crossing to let a cart pass but forgets to shut the gates leading to the death of the cart driver when ran over by a train will be criminally liable for manslaughter. However, in normal criminal law, a defendant may not be found guilty just because he or she merely failed to act. Nevertheless, there are limited exceptions to this rule. Actus reus must always be voluntary. This includes strict liability offences in relation to actus reus. A bus driver would not be convicted with murder of passengers if he suffered a heart attack leading to a car crash that kills several passengers. His actions will be involuntary hence an essential element of actus reus will be missing. However, the British courts ensure strict boundaries governing involuntary conduct to emphasize the importance of fault absence of the defendant. In the previous example, if the bus driver had experienced heart attack signs before driving and continued to drive, he would be liable of criminal offence of murdering the passengers since he would have deferred driving and sought help.
Mens rea of murder and the problems with proving intention
The jury is charged with the duty of deciding whether the accused has satisfactory mens rea or not. The meaning of the term intention has been met with reluctant expression from judges. It should be noticed however that it is possible to intend to do something without desiring it. This is referred to as oblique intent as was reinforced in Moloney case law (1985). In case of murder, the meaning of intention is not clearly defined but definitions state what it is not. This is not satisfactory as a mens rea consequence. In this context, a defendant may be regarded to act intentionally with respect to the circumstance that he or she hoped to exist would exist. Intention also entails recklessness which means taking an unjustifiable risk. However, it is wider than intention. The state of mind constitutes of intention and is one of the main elements of mens rea. In fact, in murder it is the only element of mens rea. The jury must make a decision using all available evidence whether the accused intentionally committed the murder intentionally. The jury has the responsibility to find out if the accused intended to bring about the consequences of his conduct or if he was virtually certain and recognized it as so. Intention should not be confused with motive or recklessness and for this reason; crimes are categorized as basic intent or specific intent.
Murder law: sufficient or in need of reform?
The current UK murder law is not satisfactory and has raised various controversies in a quest for review. The legislation is needed to be clear and ensure public confidence. There are calls for various degrees of murder which have been supported by the director of public prosecutions. This is in the wake of criticism towards the current life sentence to murder convicts. The cries are pressuring the jury to implement various degrees of murder charges. In fact, the government has been responsive and is considering recommendations. A similar approach was used in the US and such a change could result into the UK having a legal system with first degree murder having a life sentence on proof of intent to kill. Moreover, second degree murder as well as manslaughter with proved intent to kill would bear a discretionary life sentence. The law commission suggested that murder should be graded which is an appropriate reform to the murder law.