Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill stated that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  For Mill and other Utilitarians, the entire purpose of criminal law was to keep citizens from harm. While Mill, like many today, disagreed with the idea of victimless crimes, it is obvious that our legal system reserves its harshest punishments for those who harm others.   

Understanding Causation and Harm in Crimes

In legal proceedings involving crimes where causation is an essential element, the prosecution has the duty to demonstrate that a particular event or act—often committed by the defendant—resulted in a specific kind of harm. The concept of ‘harm’ in legal parlance refers to the specific outcome that a law or statute aims to prevent. For example, in a murder case, the law aims to prevent the act of unlawfully causing the death of a living human being. Establishing that such harm has occurred is usually the most straightforward part of the prosecution’s case. Concrete pieces of evidence like a death certificate and an autopsy report can provide incontrovertible proof that a person died and offer insights into the manner of death, such as poisoning, gunshot wound, or strangulation.

Challenges in Linking Defendants to Harm Caused

While proving that the prohibited harm occurred may be relatively straightforward, connecting the defendant to that harm is often far more complex. This stage of the legal process is where the notion of causation becomes pivotal. Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of the victim’s death, effectively linking the act to the resulting harm. This often involves intricate layers of evidence that can range from eyewitness testimonies to forensic analyses, video footage, or even circumstantial evidence that places the defendant at the scene of the crime. In some cases, advanced forensic methods may be employed to trace back the exact sequence of events leading to the death, and expert witnesses may be called to delineate how the defendant’s actions directly led to the victim’s demise. It is in navigating these complexities that legal professionals often find the most formidable challenges, underscoring the crucial role that causation plays in the adjudication of crimes.

Exceptional Circumstances: No Body Found

In some criminal cases, proving harm can present unique challenges, and one of the most striking examples of this is the pursuit of a murder case where the victim’s body has never been discovered. Prosecutors venturing into these precarious legal terrains often face an uphill battle, as the absence of a body eliminates the possibility of concrete evidence like autopsy reports or death certificates, which would otherwise substantiate the cause of death and other critical elements of the crime.

Therefore, prosecutors must heavily rely on circumstantial evidence, including but not limited to, witness testimony, digital footprints, financial records, and any inconsistencies in the behavior or statements of the accused. While these types of cases are considerably harder to win, they are not impossible; there are instances where prosecutors have successfully convicted defendants solely based on a web of circumstantial evidence. However, these cases often capture public attention and legal scrutiny precisely because of their rarity and the audacity it takes to proceed to trial without one of the most fundamental pieces of evidence—the body of the victim.

In such scenarios, not only is the burden on the prosecution to prove that a murder has occurred, but also that the absence of a body is due to a criminal act for which the defendant is responsible, making these cases exceptional examples of the complexities involved in proving harm in criminal cases.

Challenges in Proving Minor Harms

Often, it is challenging to prove harm in cases where the harm is relatively minor compared to more severe crimes like homicide. For example, consider a case involving theft between two friends, Bob and Bubba. Bob believes that Bubba stole his rent money from an envelope on his kitchen table. While the police may take a report, proving the crime becomes problematic due to a lack of identifiable characteristics of the stolen cash and absence of other evidence.

The Role of Solvability Factors in Police Response

In cases like Bob’s, the lack of enthusiasm from responding officers stems from their understanding of solvability factors and the perceived minor nature of the offense. The reality of limited resources means that solvability factors play a significant role in determining which cases get attention and which do not.

Perception and Reporting of Crime

Generally, the more serious a crime, the more likely it is to be reported and subsequently investigated. However, there are exceptions. In minor cases like theft, individuals may not bother reporting the crime due to a lack of faith in law enforcement, or due to poor community-police relations.

Minorities and Police Relations

The willingness to report crimes often correlates with the quality of the relationship between the community and the police. In many areas, minorities may be hesitant to voluntarily interact with law enforcement, even when victimized. This reluctance can lead to a steep decline in the solvability of crimes.

Special Case: Underreporting of Rape

Among the most serious felonies, rape stands out as an exception to the general trend of reporting severe crimes. Nearly half of all rapes go unreported due to the emotional toll and the arduous legal process that victims must go through.

Importance of Timely Evidence Collection

From the standpoint of a forensic scientist, victims should immediately go to the emergency room for a rape kit to be conducted. However, traumatized victims often do not think in this manner and may wash away vital physical evidence.

Challenges in Proving Rape Cases

Without conclusive DNA tests or a confession, proving that a sexual assault occurred and linking the defendant to the crime becomes exceedingly difficult.

By examining these varied scenarios, it becomes clear that proving harm in criminal cases can range from straightforward to highly challenging. The factors that contribute to this complexity include the nature of the crime, available evidence, and societal attitudes towards reporting and cooperating with law enforcement.

Key Terms

But For Causation, Causation, Cause-in-fact, Concurrence, Harm Element, Objective, Proximate Cause, Sine Qua Non, Subjective, Year and a Day Rule  

References and Further Reading

“Causation.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas.

Available: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/causation

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  09/12/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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