De Vries, the ninth DI Yates novel, will be published soon. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is the sequel to Sausage Hall, although each can be read independently of the other.
De Vries sets out to explore several themes: Why do some people become obsessed with discovering the truth about who their parents are, even at the risk of putting themselves in danger or losing their liberty? Can murder sometimes be justified? And, perhaps a little more whimsically, can buildings hide secrets and even, in certain contexts, develop personalities of their own?
In a future post, I’ll take a closer look at the mystery of parentage. For now, I’d like to consider the second of these themes. Wishing to find out more about whether murder can ever be excused, I looked up the term ‘justifiable homicide’. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that in different countries there is quite a range of legislation ‘allowing’ murder (i.e., not prosecuting the perpetrator). Internationally, the most frequently invoked law is one that absolves the murderer of blame if s/he killed while fearing for her or his own life, or the life of someone else in the immediate vicinity. In other words, the murder has been committed in self-defence. However, the precise definition of what legally constitutes self-defence is often unclear. For example, English law allows someone to exert only ‘reasonable force’ when defending property from an intruder, even if the intruder is trespassing in the middle of the night and the householder claims that s/he was terrified. The well-publicised case of Tony Martin, who shot dead a teenage boy and injured his twenty-nine-year-old burglar companion when they broke into his remote farmhouse in the early hours of one morning in the year 2000, remains controversial. Martin was convicted of murder, later downgraded to manslaughter. He served three years in prison before being released. Twenty years on, public opinion is still divided on whether he should have been convicted at all, but his conviction was the result of careful application of the law. The plea of self-defence therefore seems to depend on a number of factors, including the circumstances of death, how the law may or should be interpreted, the verdict of the jury if the perpetrator is taken to court and, finally, the views of the presiding judge.
Some countries allow or condone types of killing that others would not hesitate to regard as murder. Abortion and euthanasia are allowed by some western jurisdictions, condemned as murder by others. So-called ‘honour-killings’, while they may still be against the law, may attract lower sentences than other kinds of homicide in the countries where they are most commonly practised. (I take a closer look at honour killings in Rooted in Dishonour.) Perpetrators of ‘crimes of passion’ – i.e., murders committed in the heat of the moment, usually against a partner or spouse who has been caught ‘cheating’ or his or her lover – may sometimes be judged leniently, even sympathetically, especially in Latin countries, and a much-reduced sentence consequently handed down.
Whatever one’s stance on this, the logic that dictates that not all murders are equal when it comes to assigning culpability is not hard to understand, even though it is often controversial. But what if the murderer were under no particular pressure when s/he committed the murder? Would it make any difference to the degree of culpability in terms of, say, such a (possibly extenuating?) circumstance as being unexpectedly accosted – perhaps at home – by someone who might not have been at that moment an obvious direct threat, but who had previously inflicted personal – or close-to-personal – harm on him or her? And what if the victim were a totally reprehensible character with no counterbalancing virtues whatsoever? Could the case ever be made for letting the murderer of such a person go scot free, with his or her crime condoned or even tacitly approved by the authorities?
That was the conundrum I had to address when I started to write De Vries.
2 thoughts on “Justifiable homicide”
Ooh, I think this is going to be fascinating, Christina. It’s something I’ve pondered on myself, and the law isn’t as clear as it could be as to what constitutes culpability. I remember the Tony Martin case. In South Africa, I doubt if he would have been convicted because violent break-ins are common and firearms are legal, but in the UK, it’s another story. Even if the firearms are legally owned, I’m sure many people must have felt he shouldn’t have used them to kill the intruder, while others will have felt he was justified. Anyway, I am eagerly awaiting De Vries!
Valerie, thank you. I think Tony Martin’s position was somewhat compromised because he didn’t have a firearms licence. There was certainly a lively debate about the whole case, with, as you say, two clear camps about whether he should have done what he did. I enjoyed writing this one, because it gave me the chance to focus very much on De Vries and to explore his psychology. Best wishes to you in the Netherlands!