Is there a difference, legally or ethically, between murdering someone and forcing them to commit suicide?
June 23, 2011 5:52 AM   Subscribe

Is there a difference, legally or ethically, between murdering someone and forcing them to commit suicide?

I read this article on the BBC about some bodies that have been found that may have been of Jews that had been persecuted in medieval England. I was struck by a sentence - "The most likely explanation is that those down the well were Jewish and were probably murdered or forced to commit suicide...".

Is there some sort of difference between murdering someone and forcing them to commit suicide, or am I overthinking a piece of sloppy writing?
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I guess the difference is physically fatally injuring versus saying "jump off that cliff or I will torture you/kill your family/some other terrible thing".
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:58 AM on June 23, 2011

Response by poster: Yes, but through your actions - whether physical or not - you are causing someone else's life to end. That's murder, right?
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 6:00 AM on June 23, 2011

As a historian, yes there might be.

As a lawyer, no.
posted by jannw at 6:04 AM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

If intent was lacking it might not be murder, but would still be homicide. Murder tends to have a technical definition, both legally as well as in religious codes.
posted by frieze at 6:12 AM on June 23, 2011

Part of the confusion lies in the overlooked fact that in English "murder" is a legal term, typically a killing with malice aforethought (though there are many variations on this phrasing in the U.S., and possibly in the U.K.).

It is arguable that by forcing someone else to commit suicide, you are not "killing" them, as the victim takes the action that ends their life. But as jannw points out, the legal term "murder" (in the U.S., anyway) is more than expansive enough to comprise forced suicides, traps, putting someone in a scenario where bees sting the victim to death, etc., provided the requirement of malice aforethought (broadly, a calculated intention to end someone's life) and whatever other jurisdictional requirements there may be.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:13 AM on June 23, 2011

Best answer: Well, suicide is a sin in many religions, so forcing someone to commit suicide might not just be killing them, but also damning them. No idea if those religions have an opinion on people forced to commit suicide.

It also seems different enough on its face, to me, to be worth mentioning, regardless of whether it would have had legal implications back then or now, in the same way that whether someone is shot or strangled to death also tends to get mentioned in coverage of murders.

I find the idea of being forced to kill myself a great deal more traumatic than the idea of being killed. To have to actually take the action myself that I knew would kill me is horrifying. So it may be that they're trying to call this out as a particularly brutal level of persecution.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:14 AM on June 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Is there some sort of difference between murdering someone and forcing them to commit suicide

Maybe not legally or ethically but I don't think its fair to call it sloppy writing, there is a difference. They're forensic anthropologists not lawyers or priests.

You also appear to be trying to apply modern legal and moral standards to a medieval 'crime'. (Whether or not what was done to them would have been considered a crime at the time, I couldn't possibly speculate)
posted by missmagenta at 6:18 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Speaking for my own jurisdiction alone (New South Wales, Australia) there's a crime called "felony murder" which is basically: if somebody dies as a result of you committing a felony, then that death is regarded as murder, even if you didn't have the specific intent to kill them.

So, if you forced somebody (which might include something like assault, if not battery) to kill themselves it may involve the felony of assault, pushing it into the realm of felony murder - removing the need to prove that their death was your intent; the prosecution would only need to prove that your intent was to assault them & that they died as a result.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:28 AM on June 23, 2011

I think the more typical formulation of felony murder is that for certain enumerated felonies (often, arson, rape, burglary, arson, and kidnapping), any death directly connected to the felony (whether a burglary victim asphyxiates in the closet, or a fire fighter dies putting out the arson--but usually not where someone has a heart attack reading about the news in the next day's paper), then those manslaughters are upped to murder (i.e., even though there was no malice aforethought).

I am not admitted to the law in NSW, but it would be highly unusual to have felony murder attach to assault, which would totally vitiate manslaughter. Much of manslaughter is assaults that lead to unintended deaths; it's hard to imagine making everything murder. Though clearly most statutory definitions of murder allow the crime to attach on the showing of an intent to do grievous bodily harm.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:39 AM on June 23, 2011

Admiral Haddock ... I am also NSW qualified ... and, yeah, assault occasioning death should be upped to murder ... you're actus rea is there, and the mens rea can be a mind guilty of intentional assault.

manslaughter is IIRC for when there is an actus rea, but no mens rea.

(There is a UK case reference called the "eggshell skull case")
posted by jannw at 6:57 AM on June 23, 2011

Admiral Haddock, I think the rule you're looking for is that the underlying felony for felony murder cannot be a lesser included offense of murder. So while robbery or rape can be grounds for felony murder, assault cannot, otherwise every single murder would be first degree, because it is predicated on the felony of assault. NSW being a common law jurisdiction, I'd imagine their rule is the same, even if they don't have a specific list of eligible felonies like many US jurisdictions do. It seems that jannw disagrees, and I'll defer to his expertise, but I find that result improbable.

In any case, I really don't think it matters here, because the definition of a homicide doesn't actually need to include assault. It simply means committing any act which leads to the death of another. Said act could be whatever motivates the person to take their own life. Jack Kevorkian was tried several times for various homicide charges for assisting in various suicides. It's notable that the only time he was convicted, he administered the lethal injection himself, but even in the other cases the judge never threw out the charges as legally baseless. If simply providing the means for suicide can ground charges of homicide, it stands to reason that somehow compelling a suicide would too.
posted by valkyryn at 7:07 AM on June 23, 2011

As a rule -- a rule with exceptions -- the law tends to make sense. It would make no sense to allow a loophole through which you could force someone's death but still not be guilty of murdering him.

If anything, murder is more expansive than you imagine. You may be interested in the famous law school case of Madge Oberholtzer, who in the 1920's was kidnapped and raped by the KKK, and who (although she could have escaped) instead chose to commit suicide out of sheer despondency. Her death was accounted a murder (even without resorting to any felony murder argument).
posted by foursentences at 7:15 AM on June 23, 2011

Response by poster: All great answers here - thanks!

I find jacquilynne's point about forcing people to damn their own souls through suicide very strong - it is not something I had considered, although it makes a lot of sense. I agree that there is a difference between forced suicide and murder, but if we had been reading about another case where "the victim had either been strangled or murdered" it would definitely sound very strange.

The phrase "sloppy writing" was perhaps a little strong on my part. Point taken, missmagenta. I'm not trying to apply modern standards to medieval events, I had used the article to ask a more general question. Apologies if that didn't come across in my original question.

Many thanks as well for the fascinating responses regarding the legal definitions. Much appreciated.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 7:15 AM on June 23, 2011

Best answer: Forced suicide could easily fall under the broad language New York's second degree murder statute[1].

NYPL 125.25(1) only requires that the murderer cause the death, not that the murderer has to personally deliver the fatal injuries.

NYPL 125(2) covers "depraved indifference" murder, which in the forced suicide category would be something like a death out of a Saw movie.

Interestingly as well, NYPL 125.25(3) contains a felony murder statute, which is a tangent in this thread. NY's statute lays out which felonies comprise those felonies which can trigger felony murder. Assault ain't one of 'em.

[1] NY's second degree murder is the same as first degree murder in most other jurisdictions.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:17 AM on June 23, 2011

NYPL 125(2) NYPL 125.25(2)
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:18 AM on June 23, 2011

actus rea reus

Fixed that for you. The adjective must follow the noun.

Trivia: along the exact same lines, Bono (aka "Bono Vox") demonstrates his Latin illiteracy, because the only possible grammatically correct versions of his name (supposedly meaning "good voice") could only be either Bonus Vox or Bono Voce.

posted by UbuRoivas at 7:19 AM on June 23, 2011

Valkryn, I'm not thinking of the lesser included offense rule, for the reason you state--you can have a murder without an assault--though it's a fair point. I'm just thinking of the common law definition of manslaughter, which would be vitiated if everything other than negligent homicide could be shifted into murder.

And, since I'm amused by arguing on the internet this morning about areas far outside my legal expertise, I do note that Section 18(1) of the NSW Crimes Act of 1900 defines murder as a killing "done in an attempt to commit, or during or immediately after the commission, by the accused, or some accomplice with him or her, of a crime punishable by imprisonment for life or for 25 years," with "[e]very other punishable homicide shall be taken to be manslaughter." While I can't claim to have found the sentencing guidelines for assault, I would be staggered if assault, standing alone, were a felony punishable by 25 years to life in prison.

Double trivia: Bono got his name from a hearing aid shop, Bonavox, which he adapted; I don't think he deserves the illiteracy swipe, at least not for this. Though I despair in his ability to translate Lucretius, to be sure.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:26 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes, but through your actions - whether physical or not - you are causing someone else's life to end.

Well "causing someone else's life to end" is not necessarily murder. If a man and a woman are in a relationship and the woman says "If you break up with me I will kill myself" and the man does break up with her and she does kill herself, that's clearly not murder. If a persecuted member of a religious minority says "If you force me to convert to your religion I will kill myself" and they do kill themselves rather than submit to being converted, the persecutors are more obviously in the wrong but it's still not exactly the same thing as murder. I'm not sure if the particular case you are talking about is anything like those examples, but there are definitely situations where someone can knowingly take actions that are likely to cause a suicide without it being directly equivalent to murder.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:27 AM on June 23, 2011


18 Murder and manslaughter defined


(a) Murder shall be taken to have been committed where the act of the accused, or thing by him or her omitted to be done, causing the death charged, was done or omitted with reckless indifference to human life, or with intent to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm upon some person,

or done in an attempt to commit, or during or immediately after the commission, by the accused, or some accomplice with him or her, of a crime punishable by imprisonment for life or for 25 years.

Fixed that for you (and added some clarifying spacing)
posted by jannw at 7:33 AM on June 23, 2011

Response by poster: burnmp3s - agreed, I should have phrased that better. I should have said something like: "Yes, but through your malicious actions - whether physical or not - you are deliberately causing someone else's life to end."

Let's hope the next time I accuse someone of potentially using sloppy writing I don't have to clarify my own statement multiple times! The shame!
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 7:33 AM on June 23, 2011

burnmp3s, your argument hinges on the definition of "cause," which is obviously a word of great import in law. In common law jurisdictions (like Australia and the US), causation has been hashed out in seemingly endless case law.

The person who breaks up with the person making the suicide threat didn't cause that person's suicide. That person committed suicide of her own free will - she caused her own death.

The "if I'll convert, I'll kill myself" example is trickier, in part because it's thankfully outside the paradigm of present common law jurisdictions. How persecuted is this person's religious group? How was this person compelled to convert? Was force involved? Was this person essentially tortured into committing suicide? And so on.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:42 AM on June 23, 2011

erm ... OK, perhaps I didn't make that point too well ... I would suggest that a common assault occasioning death could reasonably be argued by the prosecution as meeting the reckless indifference requirement ... cause, you know, the guy is dead.
posted by jannw at 7:45 AM on June 23, 2011

Here in America, where eagles soar, liberty dances, and apple pies sing "America the Beautiful" in a golden basso profundo, "a common assault occasioning death" would probably be (involuntary) manslaughter.

Your NSW statute gives "reckless indifference to life" the same import as intent to kill, which contrasts interestingly with NY's "depraved indifference" standard. Compare NY's manslaughter one and manslaughter two.

Incidentally, I see that NY's manslaughter two statute covers causing/aiding suicide, although I presume that was meant more for people like Jack Kevorkian and less for people like the Trinity Killer or Jigsaw.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:01 AM on June 23, 2011

This is why lawyers and judges have to hear about, and try to prove, criminal intent. Otherwise you get defenses like this:

"I didn't kill her, I just made clear I'd torture her family to death if she didn't jump off that cliff. She killed herself!"

"I didn't kill him. I just strapped him to a log that was about to be sawed in half, then I left the room. The saw killed him! I had nothing to do with it, I wasn't even there!"

"I didn't kill him. I just squeezed the trigger of a firearm. After that, chemistry took over and propelled a bullet out of the barrel! I had nothing to do with what happened next - the bullet chose to penetrate his heart! I didn't kill him; the laws of nature, chemistry and momentum did!"

In this latter case, if you were cleaning the gun and it accidentally went off, killing your friend, it's a different charge than if you had been plotting your enemy's murder for six months and wrote a detailed journal of your plans. The difference has to do with intent.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 9:17 AM on June 23, 2011

Here in America, where eagles soar, liberty dances, and apple pies sing "America the Beautiful" in a golden basso profundo, "a common assault occasioning death" would probably be (involuntary) manslaughter.

In Canada too.
posted by smorange at 9:21 AM on June 23, 2011

Best answer: I'm put in mind of the concept of "walking the plank". Is that capital punishment, murder or forced suicide? Certainly the legal context at the time would put it into one of the first two categories, although one could argue the the direct causal chain ends in the third.
posted by meinvt at 9:36 AM on June 23, 2011

Under pirate law, it'd be capital punishment, but under anyone else's law, it'd be murder. Forced suicide would be, under anyone else's law, under the usual swords-drawn walk-the-plank circumstance, merely a subset of murder.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:02 AM on June 23, 2011

Historically, forced suicide was used as a mode of execution in the classical world, usually in prominent political cases. It occurs occasionally in modern societies, where the question of murder arises, e.g., Indian sati.

Socrates drinking the hemlock is probably best known to moderns, but there is some controversy over the extent of his free will; it became standard in the Greco-Roman "political martyrdom" anecdotes for the victim to embrace his or her death courageously and as it were voluntarily.

I am not sure these cases had any impact on Greek and Roman law because they were usually extraordinary (high-profile political executions).
posted by bad grammar at 3:32 PM on June 23, 2011

Is there a difference, legally or ethically, between murdering someone and forcing them to commit suicide?

Ethically, I think that there's certainly a difference. Isn't there a difference between killing someone, and torturing someone then killing them? Forcing someone to unwillingly commit suicide is grievous emotional torture.
posted by desuetude at 6:24 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

As somebody who has struggled with being suicidal, I feel that ethically it is far, far worse to force somebody to commit suicide. Killing somebody could be a fairly "clean" act. Driving somebody into a state of despair such that they kill themselves is a form of torture.
posted by Lexica at 4:09 PM on June 24, 2011

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