The Definitions And Consequences Of Murder OffencesNov 02, 2023
Murder is one of the (if not the) most serious criminal offence. It comes as little surprise, then, that the punishment for murder is severe. This short article seeks to provide a basic understanding of how the law deals with murder.
Before delving into the legal elements of the offence of murder, it must first be understood that murder is but a subset of the offence of culpable homicide. This means that every instance of murder would also constitute culpable homicide, but not vice versa.
Culpable homicide is defined in Section 299 of the Penal Code as follows:
“Whoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide.”
It is clear from the above that Section 299 of the Penal Code provides for two forms of intention and 1 form of knowledge:
|– Intention to cause death|
– Intention of causing bodily injury that is likely to cause death
|– Knowledge that act is likely to cause death|
Why is an understanding of culpable homicide important? As mentioned, murder is a subset of culpable homicide. Before an offence of murder can be made out, certain mental element(s), which may not be required in an offence of culpable homicide, must be established. However, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether an act is one of culpable homicide or murder.
Murder is defined in Section 300 of the Penal Code as follows:
“Except in the cases hereinafter excepted culpable homicide is murder —
- if the act by which the death is caused is done with the intention of causing death;
- if it is done with the intention of causing such bodily injury as the offender knows to be likely to cause the death of the person to whom the harm is caused;
- if it is done with the intention of causing bodily injury to any person, and the bodily injury intended to be inflicted is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death; or
- if the person committing the act knows that it is so imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death, or such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, and commits such act without any excuse for incurring the risk of causing death, or such injury as aforesaid.”
The first thing to understand is that in categories (a) – (d), the death of a person has occurred as a result of the action of another. What is the difference between the categories? The key inquiry is the intention of the act of murder.
In category (a), the offender has actually intended to cause the death of the victim. This is a fully subjective inquiry.
In category (b), the offender may not have intended to cause the death of the victim. However, he had intended an act which he knows is likely to cause the death of the victim. This is also a fully subjective inquiry.
In category (c), the offender had committed an act with the intention that the said act is to cause bodily injury to the victim. The victim, however, dies. If the said act is certified to be sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death, the offender would be guilty of murder. This is a part subjective part objective enquiry. It must be asked: Did the offender subjectively intend to cause bodily injury to the victim? It must then be asked: Objectively, was the said act sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death?
In category (d), the offender had committed an act which he knows is so imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death OR that such act would cause bodily injury as is likely to cause death. Further, there is no excuse for the offender to have so acted. Crucially, the inquiry into the mental elements under this category is fully subjective.
The distinction between the categories is important. Under Section 302 of the Penal Code, an offender who commits a category (a) murder must be punished with death. However, for an offender who commits a category (b) – (d) murder, the Court have the discretion to punish the offender with death OR life imprisonment and caning.
What are the defences to murder?
Assuming that murder is made out, are there any defences available to an offender? The answer is yes. Section 300 of the Penal Code provides 7 special defences to murder, which criminal lawyers often analyse. The relevant portions of which can be summarised as follows:
- If the offender whilst deprived of the power of self-control by grave and sudden provocation, causes the death of the person who gave the provocation, or causes the death of any other person by mistake or accident.
- If the offender, in the exercise of the right of private defence of person or property, exceeds the power given to him by law, and causes the death of the person against whom he is exercising such right of defence, without premeditation and without any intention of doing more harm than is necessary for the purpose of such defence.
N.B. This defence is also known as exceeding the right of private defence. For more information on the right of private defence refer to the article on Defences.
- If the offender, being a public servant, or aiding a public servant acting for the advancement of public justice, exceeds the powers given to him by law, and causes death by doing an act which he, in good faith, believes to be lawful and necessary for the due discharge of his duty as such public servant, and without ill will towards the person whose death is caused.
- If the act is committed without premeditation in a sudden fight in the heat of passion upon a sudden quarrel, and without the offender having taken undue advantage or acted in a cruel or unusual manner.
- When the person whose death is caused, being above 18 years of age, suffers death or takes the risk of death with his own consent.
- If the offender being a woman voluntarily causes the death of her child being a child below 12 months of age, and at the time of the offence the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child.
- If at the time of the acts or omissions causing the death concerned, the offender was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury) as substantially —
(i) impaired the offender’s capacity —
to know the nature of the acts or omissions in causing the death or in being a party to causing the death; or to know whether such acts or omissions are wrong (wrong by ordinary standards and wrong as contrary to law); or
(ii) impaired the offender’s power to control his acts or omissions in causing the death or being a party to causing the death.
N.B.: This defence is also commonly known as Diminished Responsibility.
If any of the forecited defences are made out, an offender will not be convicted of murder (and so escapes the death penalty). Instead, the offender would be convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 of the Penal Code. The said offender would then be punished based on his intention/knowledge. Section 304 of the Penal Code reads as follows:
“Whoever commits culpable homicide not amounting to murder shall —
- if the act by which death is caused is done with the intention of causing death, or of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, be punished with —
- imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to caning; or
- imprisonment for a term which may extend to 20 years, and shall also be liable to fine or to caning; or
- if the act is done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death, but without any intention to cause death, or to cause such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 15 years, or with fine, or with caning, or with any combination of such punishments.”
As is evident from the above, culpable homicide/murder is a complex topic. Many factors will be in play when determining which section (299 or 300) a case ought to fall under. Ultimately, it should be appreciated that much will depend on the mental state of the offender at the time of the offence.
 Part IV of the Penal Code contains other General Defences. For more information on General Defences, refer to the article on Overview of General Defences.