Causation Problems in the Criminal Law

I was reading a little bit about causation in the criminal law last night. There is not usually any problem with causation in criminal trial – the debate is concerns whether the defendant caused the crime or did not, whether he is guilty or innocent.

However, causation problems just might arise when the guilty verdict hinges on a very specific outcome – such as the burning of a house or the death of a human being. If there’s only one discernible cause of the specific outcome (for example, A throttling B to death), then there’s no problem and the defendant is guilty of murder. But if more than one event contributed to the death of the victim, there’s probably going to be a problem.

For example, what if A starts choking B; B, who is middle-aged and a bit fat, immediately suffers a heart attack and dies. Did A cause B’s death? Well, yeah. Kind of. The heart attack actually caused B’s death, but the prosecution will argue that “but for” (an important clause!) A’s act the victim B would not have died, thus rendering A’s action a “proximate cause” of death. This sounds like it could be a pretty sticky case. Of course the defense will argue that A did not intend to cause B’s death, that A was just trying to scare B or horse around with him and it got a little out of hand. If A is lucky, his defense will be able to demonstrate that A had absolutely no knowledge of B’s weak heart, and thus could not have anticipated that a quick choke – an activity which is fairly certainly not going to kill a person – was going to do B in. So is A only guilty of assault and battery? Well…

Here’s where it really matters what court A is in. What do you think would happen in this case? What is A guilty of? (Other than very foolish behavior.) Please comment as you see fit – I’m really interested in other perspectives.

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