How is this murder?

Mark van Dongen, a young white man with a short moustache and stubble, with matted light brown hair, wearing a purple T-shirt, crouching down on some grass.Last week a woman in the UK went on trial for murder after pouring sulphuric acid on a partner (Mark van Dongen, right) who had broken up with her. The unusual thing about this murder trial is that the woman wasn’t directly involved in the victim’s death; the man killed himself at a euthanasia clinic in Belgium after doctors agreed with him that the pain he experienced as a result of the acid injuries was ‘unbearable’. Earlier this year also, a man was convicted of manslaughter after a woman he had been harassing after she rejected his advances killed herself. These are the first incidents I am aware of in which someone is tried for killing someone who killed themselves as a result of suffering they inflicted, and I am wondering if this reflects a change in the law, or prosecutors testing out a new theory on juries. The Bristol Post has a detailed report on the proceedings on Wednesday.

It used to be the case in the UK that if someone inflicts an injury on someone else and they died more than a year and a day after the incident, they could not be charged with murder; the law was changed after a couple of high-profile cases in the 1990s in which people left for dead lingered in a coma or a persistent vegetative state for over a year and then died. More recently, people who have already served time for inflicting grievous bodily harm by an action such as shaking a baby have been charged with manslaughter when the child died, in one recent case ten years later. Although suicide itself is no longer a criminal offence (i.e. you cannot be charged if you survive and your property would not be forfeit, leaving your family penniless, if you succeed which was the case until the 1960s), encouraging or assisting a suicide is a crime, whether you are a doctor, a relative or someone else. But this is the first I have heard of someone being charged with murder or manslaughter over a suicide which entirely the victim’s choice and took place after the original attack had ended — not, for example, jumping from a height to escape someone clearly intending to harm them (e.g. by rape).

Mark van Dongen, the victim in this case, had very severe injuries inflicted on him and the attack, assuming she knew the substance was acid (she claimed in court she thought it was water) would rightly attract a long prison sentence. He lost the sight in one eye, was left with severely impaired sight in the other, and lost a leg and suffered dreadful scarring which, it is reported, caused persistent itching. It was also reported that he was paralysed from the neck down, though they do not report how this happened; it is not a typical injury from having acid poured on the outside of the body and was clearly not paralysed from the neck down when he ran out into the street immediately after the attack. Someone suggested that it could have been a complication of an infection.

Of course, when someone kills themselves because of something someone else did, it’s natural for a family to blame the person who wronged them and say “he’s dead because of you” or even “you killed him”, but this has not translated into murder or manslaughter charges until now. I suspect it will lose and if it succeeds, will be thrown out on appeal although serious charges of causing grievous bodily harm remain. It is a worrying development that someone can be charged with murder for someone else’s suicide when that suicide was not encouraged by him in any way, however much he or she may have wronged them; it opens the way for people to be charged for anything someone does when they feel harassed or wronged by someone else (when that person may be rightly aggrieved — they may be seeking justice or answers about the death of their relative, for example), and for a jury to be presented with an emotive case and invited to share in the emotions. This has to stop. Suicide is suicide and murder is murder; if your action does not cause someone’s death, it is not murder.

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