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TWENTY-ONE
LEGAL PUZZLERS

PHIL 22B
Spring 2000

FOUR

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4. Is It Murder to Induce Someone to Commit Suicide?
In a South African case the defendant had lost his daughter and blamed his mother for having killed her. His mother did not deny her responsbility and promised to commit suicide. Eight days later she still had not done it. The man then came into her hut with a stick and some rope. He tied the rope to a rafter, made a noose at the other end, and urged his mother to "Get up and hang yourself." The woman asked for something to stand on. The man put a block of wood under the rope. He then left the hut and watched his mother get up on the block of wood, put the noose around her neck, and kick the block away. Did the man cause the death of his mother?

  Commentary

COMMENTARY

Commentary. Here again the sine qua non test seems to point a finger at the son. But for his reminder and his finding a stick and some rope, his mother would not have died. Brief as the scenario is, we should assume that the mother would not have killed herself without the son's having reminded her of the promise she made. But even so, if the son's urging of his mother to do what she had promised to do was not coercive, what weight should we give to what the mother does? If she chose to do what she did and she was not forced, hasn't she, rather than her son, caused her death? Consider the following:

John Provides Alice with an Offer Too Good To Refuse: John has been searching for a way to kill Alice. He has purchased a vile of arsenic, but has never found an opportune time to use it. It is his turn to make lunch. He makes soup and sandwiches. He puts a lethal dose of arsenic into Alice's bowl, the bright blue one, reserving the green bowl without arsenic for himself. When Alice joins him at the table, he pushes the blue bowl in her direction and says, "here, have your soup before it gets too cold." Alice lifts her spoon to her lips and is just about to take her first sip when John is suddenly overcome with an attack of remorse. He "stays" her hand, confesses his "crime," and begs not to take a single spoonful. Alice puts down her spoon, looks up at John, then back at the blue bowl which she now knows is laced with arsenic, looks back at John and says, "John, it's not been easy living with you these past few years. Recently, I have been looking for a way out, but have not known what to do. This "special" bowl of soup is just the ticket. Thank you, John." And without another word, Alice takes the blue bowl with both her hands, cups it to her lips, and swallows its contents in one long, swift gulp. She then settles back in her chair, closes her eyes, pats her tummy, and quietly passes away.

Did John kill Alice?

Here, I think, most of us would be inclined to say that John has not killed Alice. He provides her with the means to her end, but he does not bring about her end. Alice seizes the means and brings about her own end. She breaks the causal sequence set in motion by John. She kills herself.

So how would you decide the South African case? Has the son killed his mother or has the mother, like Alice, killed herself? And, looking back, what about the nurse with scarlet fever in the very first puzzler? Did she cause Alice's death rather than John? The following puzzler introduces yet another wrinkle.

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Page last edited: December 18, 1999