R v White – 1910

February 26, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to R v White – 1910

In 1910, the English Court of Appeal delivered a landmark judgement in R v White, shaping the legal landscape around attempted murder and the concept of causation. The case centered around Marvin White, accused of attempting to murder his mother through poisoning, despite her ultimate death being attributed to a heart attack.

Facts of the Case

Marvin White harbored animosity towards his mother and sought to poison her. He acquired cyanide, a deadly substance, and slipped it into her lemonade. Fortunately, his mother only consumed a small portion of the drink before experiencing sudden chest pains and ultimately dying from a heart attack. The medical examiner confirmed that the cyanide did not contribute to her death, raising the crucial question: could White be convicted of attempted murder despite the poison’s lack of actual effect?

Arguments of the Parties

  • Crown Prosecution: Despite the lack of direct causation, the prosecution argued that White’s actions constituted an attempt to murder. They emphasized his clear intention to poison his mother with a potentially lethal substance. The cyanide, regardless of the specific cause of death, evidenced his premeditation and attempt to bring about his mother’s demise.
  • White’s Defense: White’s defense countered that since the poison did not cause his mother’s death, his actions could not be considered an attempt, as the essential element of causation was absent. They argued that even if he intended to kill her, the attempt remained incomplete as the intended outcome (death by poison) never materialized.

Court’s Holding and Reasoning

The Court of Appeal upheld White’s conviction for attempted murder, establishing the “but for” test as a fundamental element in such cases. Lord Justice Darling, delivering the judgement, declared that the prosecution must prove that “but for” the defendant’s act, the result (in this case, the attempted poisoning) would not have occurred. While White’s mother ultimately died from a different cause, his intentional act of placing the poison in her drink, combined with its dangerous nature, constituted a substantial step towards achieving the desired outcome – her death. Therefore, despite the lack of direct causation, his attempt was deemed punishable.

Analysis and Impact

R v White significantly impacted the understanding of causation in attempted murder cases. The “but for” test clarified that intention and a substantial step towards the desired outcome, even if not fully realized, could suffice for an attempt conviction. This case solidified the focus on mens rea (guilty mind) and proximate cause in establishing attempts, setting a precedent for future legal proceedings. However, some scholars debate the potential harshness of applying the “but for” test strictly, potentially criminalizing incomplete acts with uncertain outcomes.

Conclusion

R v White stands as a significant case in legal history, refining the concept of causation and its application in attempted murder charges. The “but for” test continues to hold relevance in legal proceedings, balancing the defendant’s intent with the need for a substantial step towards a harmful outcome. The case serves as a reminder of the intricate relationship between intent, action, and consequence in the complexities of criminal law.

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