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Murder was the case

Legally Speaking with Anthony Sylvestre, Jr

Posted: Tuesday, January 7, 2014. 3:36 pm CST.

“Murder was the Case!”

Legally Speaking with Anthony Sylvestre, Jr

Legally Speaking with Anthony Sylvestre, Jr

By Anthony Sylvestre, Jr.

In the 1994 song of the same name, renowned Los Angeles rapper, now converted Rastafarian, Calvin Cardozar Broadus Jr.,  AKA Snoop Doggy Dogg, AKA Snoop Lion, glorifies the act of murder as something cool.

It does appear as though the children of the 90’s who grew up listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s  song “Murder was the Case” equally find the act of killing as cool and a thrill. For what else would explain this obscene increase in the murder rate in Belize since the mid-1990s but this soul-less disregard for human life caused by this belief that killing is cool or a thrill. This of course has had a tsunami like effect on the country, leading to entire communities and generations being lost in consequence. It has also lead to the word “murder” becoming one of the most commonly used word of the Belizean lingua franca, familiar to the little child and the elderly alike.

But what may be the cause of the increase in the murder rate over the last 20 years is an important topic for a different day. Today, we delve a little into what is the crime of murder.

The genesis

We are told in the Book of Genesis, that Cain lured his younger brother into the fields and there killed him. Indeed, Cain’s slaying of Abel is the first instance of one human killing a fellow human.

Whilst the first act of murder may be traced to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the etymology of the word “murder” has a different history. It is from 1300 Old English. As the father of English Literature Goeffery Chaucer wrote in the “Nun’s Priest Tale” c.1386: “Mordre wol out that se day by day. “

Thus the act of killing came to be referred to as the crime of  “murder”. But as will be seen, it is not every killing that is murder.

The starting point therefore is a definition of the crime of murder.

Murder is defined in Belizean law (section 117 of the Criminal Code) as intentionally causing the death of another person by unlawful harm. Put another way, it is the intentional killing of someone without lawful excuse. So Cain is not regarded as the first murderer because of the act of killing his brother Abel, but because, as we would say in Kriol, “ih mean fi kill ah and ih neva have no reason fi kill ah.” For it was because of his jealousy of his younger brother Abel that drove Cain to rage and anger to murder him. And from biblical accounts, Cain had no reason for killing Abel: he was not defending himself nor his property or anyone. For that is the defence to a charge of murder; that is, defense of one’s person, his property or another. But here is the thing: the force used which lead to the killing must be shown to have been necessary and proportionate to the thing done. So a person who is slapped cannot retaliate by off loading a 9 mm on his aggressor and later claim he was defending himself. The force used was neither necessary nor proportionate in order to defend himself.

Murder- a crime of different faces

Jealousy, like that which consumed Cain, is not the only driving emotion that leads to murder. Indeed, people commit murder for varying reasons. It is therefore regarded as a crime of different faces.

As the former head of the British judiciary (Lord Bingham) said in a Privy Council case which was being appealed from Belize:

…. [T]he crime of murder embraces a range of offences of widely varying degrees of criminal culpability. It covers at one extreme the sadistic murder of a child for purposes of sexual gratification, a terrorist atrocity causing multiple deaths or a contract killing, at the other the mercy-killing of a loved one suffering unbearable pain in a terminal illness or a killing which results from an excessive response to a perceived threat.[1]

There was a time in Belize when every person who was convicted of the crime of murder suffered the one punishment, death by hanging. But overtime it came to be accepted that not all murderers should suffer the same end; that is, death, even though they all brought that same end to all their victims. This is the position taken by the Privy Council in 2002 in the aforementioned case from Belize in which they Privy Council decided that the mandatory sentence of death to all convicted murderers was cruel and inhumane.

It rationalized, relying on a Royal Commission report 1949 -1953 done in England, that  murderers may be: “men, women, youths, girls, or hardly older than children. They may be normal or they may be feeble-minded, neurotic, epileptic, borderline cases, or insane;… The crime may be human … or brutal and callous to an almost unbelievable degree. It may have occurred so much in the heat of passion as to rule out the possibility of premeditation, or it may have been well prepared and carried out in cold blood. The crime may be committed in order to carry out another crime or in the course of committing it or to secure escape after its commission. …. The motives, springing from weakness ….from wickedness, …. revenge, lust, jealousy, anger, fear, pity, despair, duty, self-righteousness, political fanaticism….[2]

These factors therefore made the imposition of a mandatory sentence of death on all convicted of murder to be cruel. It would be appropriate in some cases, but wholly inappropriate and cruel in other cases. So today, a murderer faces two possible sentences: death or life. But death is imposed on only the most heinous of murderers.

And here is a further thing: even if a person did intentionally kill and there was no lawful excuse for the killing, she could escape being found guilty of murder and a sentence of death or life imprisonment. An example of this happening would be where a person was extremely provoked. A person would be regarded as being extremely provoked if for instance, she found a man sexually assaulting her child.

Were this to happen, and she would kill that man, the law would nonetheless regard her as being liable, but only for the crime of manslaughter and she would therefore only face a range of term of imprisonment of 12 years to life. This extreme provocation is what is called a partial defence. It only partially absolves a person from liability whereas self defence is an absolute defence, relieving a defendant absolutely from liability.

Becoming informed

There are several other partial defences which a person, who would otherwise be a murderer, can use to minimize his liability to that of manslaughter. These include diminished responsibility, a person acting under a reasonable belief that he is under a duty to cause death or, in the case of a recent mother, who causes the death of her child, a disease or disorder of the mind produced by child bearing.

We cannot here give an exhaustive discussion of all of these and all the facets of the crime of murder. Indeed entire books have been written on the sole topic of murder, which, it is evident, is vast and encompassing. Suffice it to say, this snippet, is to provide a basic understanding of the crime of murder with the hope that when you next hear a news story on a murder case, you can make an informed analysis of the case.




[1] Patrick Reyes v The Queen [2002] UKPC , para 11

[2] Para 11


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