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Law School For You — Murder, Why We Care

  |   By   |   Paul SamakowOpen link in another window

Everyone loves watching television crime shows.  Even before television, when we could only read to be entertained, the Bible was one of the most read books ever written, with the marque stories describing the original sin featuring Adam and Eve, and soon thereafter followed that of Cain slaying his brother.

Television producers and writers, now, and for decades, have created shows that involve murder.  The fictionalized accounts challenge and tease us, and most often, those accounts are taken from the scenarios of real life crimes and tragedies.

The fascination with murder is almost an addiction.  Such would account for why the public cannot get enough, and figuratively digests these crime drama programs, making them among the most watched every single night.  Even rerun crime shows on some of the cable stations outrank many first timers on the networks.

People receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds.  Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a very powerful and stimulating effect on the human brain.  Think about the child who wants to ride the roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill.  The child experiences the physical effects of adrenaline, which is addicting, and thus wants more and more, and another and another ride.

Murder is endlessly addicting to the inquiring mind.  We are almost possessed to learn the ways in which the deed was committed and the reasons why people kill.  In the real world, we are obliged to try to understand the “why” because understanding is necessary to try to predict, prevent and protect.

We know killing is a fundamental wrong.  We are fascinated because perhaps it is also a fundamental human impulse (see Cain and Able).  There are many questions we must have answered:  Who did it?  Why?  How?  Was the act that of a normal person, or of someone bad, criminal or deranged?

We all know what anger feels like.  We all know what jealousy feels like.  If these emotions lead to killing, are they an excuse?  Would we have felt the same way?  Could we have stopped ourselves?  What degree of rage are we capable of?

When killing is motivated by an emotion it is often called a “crime of passion.”  Then we wonder, was it a common passion we share, or was it an irrational one?  Was the killing an act we might identify with at an extreme and somehow thus excuse, or was it so far-fetched we can rationalize such an act could never have been done by us?

Ultimately, we want to rationalize we are not like the killer. We care about crime because we need to be able to assure ourselves we are not like them.

In April, 1993, Ellie Nesler walked into a California courthouse and shot to death the man who had sexually molested her son.  Was it vigilante justice or cold-blooded revenge?  Nesler was convicted of manslaughter, despite the clear fact that she planned the killing and intended to kill, both elements of first-degree murder. The jury apparently understood her passion and impulse.

An analysis of killing someone, when viewed from the criminal law perspective, takes on many subtle definitions and understandings.  Following are some commonly held generalizations and explanations.

First, murder is defined as an unlawful killing, through a criminal act or omission, of another human, with malice “aforethought,” when done by a person of sound mind, memory and discretion.  These concepts will be discussed below.

Next, there are generally four labels applied to the criminal act of killing someone.

Involuntary Manslaughter: The killer did not intend to kill. The death resulted from negligence.

Voluntary Manslaughter:  The killer may have intended to kill.  The death was not a result of negligence, but may have come from “the heat of passion.”

Second Degree Murder:  The killer usually intended to kill.

First Degree Murder:  The killer intended to kill and it was premeditated.


Continuing, the “elements” of killing as described above are explained as follows:

Unlawful means that the killing is not done “outside” of the law, such as capital punishment, justified self-defense, or the killing of enemy combatants during a war.

The issue of when life begins enters into the definition.  At common law, a fetus was not a human being.

Malice aforethought originally had an everyday meaning:  a deliberate and premeditated killing of another motivated by ill will.  The law has evolved to eliminate from the definition the requirement of actual premeditation and deliberation, as well as true malice.  All that is now required for malice is to show one of four states of mind:

* Intent to kill

* Intent to inflict grievous bodily harm, even short of death

* Reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk of life

* Intent to commit a dangerous felony

Intent is the resolution to commit a crime.  A defendant’s possession of tools for breaking into a safe clearly suggests the intent to commit a burglary.

Additional legal understandings include that the use of a deadly weapon allows for the inference that the killer intended to kill. Intent is also attached when a death occurs during the commission of a felony crime.

Under the “felony-murder” rule, the felony committed, or attempted, that results in death, must be a dangerous felony, such as burglary, arson, rape, robbery or kidnapping.

For someone to be found guilty of most crimes, that person must have some awareness that the act was criminal.  When a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity” is entered, it is a statement that the individual lacked the capacity to understand that his or her actions were wrong.

Returning to the discussion about “why” someone kills, it ultimately remains the most sought after answer.  Nonetheless, convictions occur regularly without ever knowing the reasons crimes were committed.  The reason for this is that motive, if understood, can help the prosecution identify and charge a defendant, but rarely provides direct evidence.  An example might be that showing that someone was having personal financial difficulties.  Such might be a reason someone would want to commit a robbery, but it provides, at best, only circumstantial evidence, and not direct evidence of the actual commission of the crime.

Cain, nor any other biblical personalities that followed who committed crimes, ever envisioned some of the horrific acts that we see regularly in our world today.  Bombs, chemical weapons, terrorism, school shootings, church massacres are the sensational incidents that we hear about.  These will always present to our fascination and it is clear that none of them are like us.  Thank goodness.