Criminal Minds
November 13, 2004 9:04 PM   Subscribe

"Kill the president... or your daughter dies!"

Does the assassin have a legal leg to stand on? [more inside.... or your daughter dies!]

In a number of movies/television shows, a person's loved ones are kidnapped, and the person is told they have to kill a third party to save their family.

Now imagine someone were forced to do this and actually committed the murder. Now they are on trial, and are arguing some form of self-defense based on saving their loved one. Also assume that there is enough supporting evidence that the person's story is not written off out of hand.

Do they have a legal leg to stand on?
posted by John Kenneth Fisher to Law & Government (13 answers total)
They do not have a legal leg to stand on, I don't think. Though they can plead duress and hope that it's given sufficient weight by the judge/jury.

In addition, you don't have to imagine it happened. It happened a year or two ago with a bank robbery.
posted by dobbs at 9:12 PM on November 13, 2004


Ultimately it would come down to how nice the prosecutor felt like being and how pissed off the family of the third party was.
posted by falconred at 9:17 PM on November 13, 2004

The main type of excuse is the defense of duress. The principle is that when people are forced to do something wrong, it ought not to count against them. There is widespread disagreement, however, over how duress is defined and what kinds of crimes can be excused by duress. States differ. Some permit only having a gun pointed to your head; others permit threats of bodily harm ("I'll hurt you if you don't do that"); and still others are fairly lenient is permitting such things as "If you don't do that, I'll tell other people something nasty about you". Whatever the threat, it must be immediate, not some ongoing situation of extortion or blackmail. And, whatever the threat, the crime must be minor and not serious. Murder, for example, can never be excused by duress.

Some modern forms of duress statutes have included the specific defense of brainwashing, a type of duress involving breaking down somebody's will. If a person is confined, pressured for months, given hypnotic drugs, narcotics, or other substances, the law looks upon and crime committed under these circumstances as lacking the element of actus reus.

posted by Tenuki at 9:21 PM on November 13, 2004

A Time To Kill, though not exactly the same premise, was a very good movie/book about killing somebody under duress. Highly recommend it.
posted by jmd82 at 9:46 PM on November 13, 2004

Response by poster: Well that's just bad law.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 9:47 PM on November 13, 2004

They tried the "brainwashing" defense with the younger D.C. sniper - he didn't get the death penatly but he got life in prison, I believe.
posted by falconred at 9:52 AM on November 14, 2004

I remember this being the plot of that Depp/Walken movie, "Nick of Time," and wondering the same thing.

I just need to say, Best. "More inside." Ever.
posted by brownpau at 11:13 AM on November 14, 2004

I asked my criminology teacher this once, who was an ex legal-aid lawyer in the US.

Basically, self-defence and/or duress are only going to work as excuses for lesser crimes.

Example: If your life is in danger, and you manage to physically harm, but not kill someone, you might be able to lessen your sentence with such an excuse.

However, if you commit the same level of crime (murder for murder) you will get the book thrown at you. Period.
posted by shepd at 3:53 PM on November 14, 2004

Oh, there was one way out that I was told of:

"Battered Wife Syndrome".

Supposedly, in some past case, a wife was serverly beaten over a course of years. She eventually killed her husband, and was found not guilty for reasons of insanity.
posted by shepd at 3:54 PM on November 14, 2004

Should we be worried that your MeFi handle uses your first, middle and last name, a la Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, James Earl Ray, Sirhan B. Sirhan, Mark David Chapman, et al?
posted by Frank Grimes at 6:28 PM on November 14, 2004

When I was studying criminal law, one of the rationales given for not allowing duress as a defence to murder (as opposed to lesser crimes) was that the law thinks it better for the victim of duress to submit to the threat than to commit the positive act of murder, such is the disdain the law reserves for homicide.

Interesting though that self-defence (in NSW, Australia) can be a defence to murder (but not if you're just defending property, or if you use excessive force).
posted by bright cold day at 8:55 PM on November 14, 2004

Note that this is closely related to the so-called Nuremberg defense -- recently in the news, and in trickle-down form dismissed for non-violent crimes as a matter of course.

Taking the hypothetical at face value, the citizen has a responsibility to contact law enforcement and trust that they will put all resources at their disposal to save his daughter. If the person doesn't do this -- follows through with the murder -- they are at best an accomplice, and at best can expect some sort of reduced sentence. Most states have a variety of ways to modify a homicide sentence up (aggravating factors) or down (mitigating factors) depending on the circumstances. I expect there are some states where the charge in question would be second-degree murder rather than first-degree.
posted by dhartung at 12:08 AM on November 15, 2004

Response by poster: Should we be worried that your MeFi handle uses your first, middle and last name, a la Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, James Earl Ray, Sirhan B. Sirhan, Mark David Chapman, et al?

Not at all! I'd elaborate, but I'm up to the good part of Catcher in the Rye, so can't really talk. :-)
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 1:48 PM on November 15, 2004

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