Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Statute of Limitations on Dying From Gunshot?

Okay, so there is no statute of limitations on murder, I get that.  Fair enough.

But is there some limit on our notion of "cause" when it comes to murder?

This fellow died of complications from a gunshot wound.... 36 years after he was shot.

Sacramento Police are investigating the murder of a 62-year-old man who died Monday, but say the trigger was pulled in 1977. 

 Walter Johnson, 62, was paralyzed by the shooting 36 years ago, and died from medical complications from that. Police say Johnson was driving to his parents’ home April 9, 1977, when three men blocked the roadway with their car on San Carlos Way. The three men walked up to Johnson, who was still in his car, investigators say. Johnson was shot in the upper body after a brief struggle, police say. He was then robbed and the three men fled in their red or brown Ford Pinto. 

They were never caught. Because Johnson died from complications stemming from the shooting, his death is considered a homicide. 

At some point you have to factor in the chances that the guy would have died from some other cause if he had NOT been shot.  The guy was 26.  The life expectancy of a 26 year old male, in that meighborhood, is (I'm guessing) 46 additional years, or a total age of 72.  Since 62 is less than that, is this murder?  Suppose it had been 46 years ago.  Or 66 years ago, and the guy died "of complications from the gunshot wound" at the age of 92.  Would that still be murder?  How about 86 years and the guy died at the age of 112.  Would THAT be murder?

I understand the quality of life issue, and that is both an aggravating factor in the assault, and a factor that would increase the size of civil liability in a lawsuit for damages.  No question the gunshot wound made his life worse.  But did it plausibly "cause" his death, in a legal sense?  And if so, at what age would this presumption of cause become rebuttable, if ever?

This sounds like a job for Dr Bellemare!  Or perhaps for Dr. Taylor! Or, on the tort side, for Prof. Hasnas. 

Nod to Angry Alex

7 comments:

Tim Worstall said...

English Common Law (certainly used to) state that one year and a day was the limit. If death following injury or assault was inside that time then it could be murder, manslaughter, whatever. Over that time limit, well, it just isn't.

No idea about the US but a lot of your basic law is indeed old English Common Law.

Squarely Rooted said...

What if somebody gets shot, is in the ICU, and then the hospital explodes due to a gas leak? Is that murder or just attempted murder?

Iatrogenic said...

In answer to your questions:

“But is there some limit on our notion of "cause" when it comes to murder?”

No, there is no limit on cause. Time limits on prosecutions are a legal fiction invented by lawyers (just because the perpetrator wasn't charged in time doesn't mean the offense didn't happen.) Cause is determined by medical doctors (in most states) and we are concerned with what actually happened.

“is this murder?”

First I think we need to clarify some terms you seem to be using interchangeably.
Manner of death (homicide, suicide, accident, natural, and undetermined) and cause of death (gunshot wound, etc…) are medical definitions and diagnoses. These are determined based on medical science and the judgment/opinion of the medical examiner.
Murder is a legal definition; it is alleged by law enforcement and lawyers, and often defined as the unlawful taking of life. Precise definitions vary from state to state though. e.g. killing in self-defense and legal executions are homicide but not murder.
(All murders are homicide but not all homicides are murder.)

The above story’s scenario is not unusual. Paralysis caused by the gunshot wound commonly leads to other complications such as pneumonia, osteomyelitis, pulmonary embolus, etc... which the victim would not have otherwise experienced.

“The cause of death is the injury, disease or combination of the two that initiates a train of physiological disturbances that no matter how brief or prolonged, results in the fatal termination of an individual’s life.”- Dr. Adelson, The Pathology of Homicide

“But did it plausibly "cause" his death, in a legal sense?”

Yes, it is a plausible (and likely) cause of death both medically and legally.

“ And if so, at what age would this presumption of cause become rebuttable, if ever?”

The age itself will not make it rebuttable, only the presence of another pathologic process unrelated to the initial injury that could also account for the death would. (e.g. a lethal blood level of methamphetamine on autopsy.)

Mungowitz said...

Thanks, Iatrogenic!

Hasdrubal said...

Would it be double jeopardy if they had actually captured and convicted his attackers 36 years ago for attempted murder, and then re-tried them for murder now?

Would dying now invalidate a 36 year old attempted murder conviction?

Iatrogenic said...

No, dying later would not invalidate an attempted murder conviction.

Some places do consider retrial for murder after an attempted murder conviction double jeopardy, but others will allow it. I have personally never run across it, however my understanding is that retrial by the prosecution in such a case is extremely rare, even where it is allowed.

And in answer to Squarely Rooted's question:
A lot more detailed information would be required to make a determination in his scenario. It would have to be approached on a case-by-case basis.

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