Assessing Actus Reus and Mens Rea in Murder

Introduction

The two core elements of murder are actus reus where there is an unlawful killing of a human being in the Queen's peace; and mens rea is malice aforethought where there is an intent to kill or to cause GBH. The general principle of actus reus and mens rea will be assessed to determine whether or not Sinead will be liable for the murders of Topper and Maria.

Whether or not Sinead will be liable for murders of Topper and Maria?

A person will be liable for murder if he is of sound mind and discretion and unlawfully kills any another living person with an intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.

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Actus reus

The general principle of actus reus will determine whether or not Sinead committed murders of Tooper and Maria. Actus reus consists of unlawful killing of a human being by another human being under the Queen’s peace. A killing may not be unlawful if the killing involves killing an enemy in battle; justified killing in self defence, prevention of crime or in necessity or where the elements of a homicide offence cannot be established. Therefore, in this case the question of unlawful killing will be determined by assessing whether or not the elements of homicide offences were there. For the offence of murder, there must be a causal link between the act/omission of Sinead and the deaths. Such act or omission may not be the sole or main cause of the death. Lord Woolf MR held that the act must have substantially, not minimally negligibly or trivially contributed to, caused the death. An exception to this principle of causation is that of the ‘Egg-Shell’ or ‘Thin-skull’ principle, which requires the defendant to take their victims as they find them irrespective of the fact that the unusual sensitive condition of the victim was unforeseeable by an ordinary person. This was established in R v Hayward. So, the victim’s unforeseen physical abnormalities cannot prevent the defendant’s liability for a tort offence. As a result, any pre-dispositions or inherent weaknesses or vulnerabilities of the victim are deemed irrelevant. If the chain of causation is broken by an intervening act, which becomes the sole cause of the victim's death, the defendant would be relieved from the liability. Such act could also be a normal medical treatment employed to deal with a criminal injury. However, if death is resulted from the


  1. The Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter’ (2019) accessed 20 November 2020 .
  2. Claire de Than and Russell Heaton, Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2013) 154.
  3. R v HM Coroner for Inner London ex p Douglas-Williams [1999] 1 All ER 344
  4. R v Hayward (1908) 21 Cox 692.
  5. Janet Loveless, Mischa Allen and Caroline Derry, Complete Criminal Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (Oxford University Press 2020) 76.
  6. The Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter’ (2019) accessed 20 November 2020 .
  7. R v Wallace (Berlinah) [2018] EWCA Crim 690.
  8. medical treatment, the death must be regarded as caused by the criminal injury. In the most extraordinary case, the treatment could be regarded as the cause of the death excluding the defendant’s act. In R v Cheshire, the court held that although medical negligence was the immediate cause of the death, responsibility of the defendant cannot be excluded unless the negligent treatment was so independent of the defendant’s act, and in itself so potent in causing the death that contribution made by defendant’s act is insignificant. In regard to the killing of Topper, the act of Sinead causing the itching power to fall on Topper’s head shows a causal link between the act and the death of Topper. Even though this act is not the sole cause as is evident from the fact that Topper had an undiagnosed allergy to itching powder, it is substantial that the itching power caused Topper serious illness, which took his life. It does not matter if Sinead did not know about Topper’s condition. Applying the Egg-Shell principle Sinead cannot escape liability for the death. It does not matter Topper received poor treatment as he was seriously ill already and the poor treatment could not have independently caused the death. In regard to killing Maria, there is a causal link between Sinead’s throwing the petrol bomb through the window and Maria’ death due to the blaze caused by the petrol bomb. Sinead’s act is the sole cause of her death.

    Mens rea

    For murder, it must be determined whether or not Sinead intended to kill or cause grievous bodily harm to Toppers or Maria. Thus, the intent must be intent to kill or to cause grievous bodily harm. It was ruled likewise in the case of Vickers. The mens rea of murder covers not only direct intent, but also to oblique intent. Oblique or indirect intent is the intent the murder, which may not be the aim of purpose. For intention to exist the defendant must have felt sure his action would certainly caused death or serious bodily harm and he appreciated that this was the case. In this case whether Sinead intended or not will depend on whether Sinead indirectly intended the killing which is either a pre-requisite to achieve the killing, which is the desired primary purpose or a virtually certain consequence of the purpose. In R v Woollin, it was held that the proof that the defendant foresaw it was virtually certain they would cause death or grievous bodily harm is merely evidence that the jury may draw an inference of intent.


  9. The Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter’ (2019) accessed 20 November 2020 .
  10. R v Cheshire (1991) 3 All ER 670.
  11. TThe Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter’ (2019) accessed 20 November 2020 .
  12. Nicola Monaghan, Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2018) 102.
  13. R v Vickers [1957] 2 QB 664.
  14. Nicola Monaghan, Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2018) 91.
  15. The Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter’ (2019) accessed 20 November 2020 .
  16. Nicola Monaghan, Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2018) 92.
  17. R v Woollin [1999] 1 Cr App R 8 (HOL).
  18. In order for the defendant to be guilty of murder, the actus reus and mens rea must coincide in time. Thus, Sinead must have for the mens rea for the unlawful for the offence at some point during the actus reus of that offence. This theory can also be avoided, such as in case of R v Miller where the House of Lords employed the duty principle to hold the defendant liable. If the defendant performs an act without the necessary mens rea, which creates danger to a person, the defendant has the duty to avert the danger when they realised that they have caused. Such advertent failure to avert the danger coincides with actus reus. In regard to killing of Topper, the fact shows that Sinead did not intend to kill or cause grievous bodily harm. However, his failure to avert the danger from the falling itching powder coincided with the actus reus. Therefore, Sinead will be liable for murder. In regard to killing Maria, Sinead had the mens rea and it coincided with actus reus. Throwing the petrol bomb is the indirect intent, which is the prerequisite to cause the blaze that killed Maria, the primary purpose. If there is a proof that Sinead foresaw the virtual certainties of the consequence, it infers intent to cause the primary purpose. As such, applying the principle of coincidence, Sinead will be liable for murdering Maria.

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    Conclusion

    The presence of actus reus and mens rea is necessary to make a person liable for murder. Murder is an unlawful killing and for this to prove, a causal link between the act or omission of an accused and the death is necessary. The act must substantially cause the death. Even when it does not, the Egg-Shell principle will make the accused liable if the victim had unusual sensitive condition, inherent weaknesses or vulnerabilities not foreseeable to an ordinary person. The actus reus and mens rea must coincide for making the accused liable. The intention must be to kill or cause grievous bodily harm. Intention can be oblique intention of the murder, which may not be the aim of purpose of actus reus. If intent was absent, but when the accused failed his duty to avert the danger to another person, it would be treated as being in coincidence with mens rea. In regard to Toppers, it is coincidence of Egg-Shell principle and failure to avert danger that makes Sinead liable. In case of Maria, it is coincidence of actus reus and indirect mens rea that makes Sinead liable.


  19. R v Miller [1983] 2 AC 161.
  20. Nicola Monaghan, Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2018) 75.
  21. Nicola Monaghan, Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2018) 102.

Cases

R v Cheshire (1991) 3 All ER 670 R v HM Coroner for Inner London ex p Douglas-Williams [1999] 1 All ER 344 R v Hayward (1908) 21 Cox 692 R v Miller [1983] 2 AC 161 R v Vickers [1957] 2 QB 664 R v Wallace (Berlinah) [2018] EWCA Crim 690 R v Woollin [1999] 1 Cr App R 8 (HOL)

Bibliography

Books

Loveless J, Mischa Allen and Caroline Derry, Complete Criminal Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (Oxford University Press 2020) Monaghan N, Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2018) Than CD and Russell Heaton, Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2013)

Others

The Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter’ (2019) accessed 20 November 2020 .

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