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B. Elements of murder: The prosecution in a murder case must show the following four elements:

  • actus reus (conduct by the defendant);
  • corpus delicti (proof of a death);
  • mens rea (a culpable mental state);
  • proximate cause (a causal link between the defendant’s act and the death).

Let’s review each of these in turn.

1. Actus reus: There must be conduct by the defendant (i.e., an “actus reus”), either an affirmative act or an omission where there was a duty to act.

a. Participating in events leading up to assisted suicide not sufficient: One situation in which the issue of actus reus comes up is assisted suicide. Most modern courts have held that providing another with the means for that person to kill herself does not constitute a sufficient actus reus to sustain a murder charge.

Example: D (the famed Dr. Death, Dr. Jack Kevorkian) provides the Vs, two terminally ill women, with a poison-delivery machine they can use to kill themselves. (D is acting at the women’s request.) Although D provides the mechanisms, helps hook the Vs up to them, and explains what the Vs need to do to make the machines work, the actual act of introducing the deadly poison into each woman’s body is under the exclusive control of the woman herself.

Held, D is not guilty of murder. “[W]here a defendant merely is involved in the events leading up to the death, such as providing the means, the proper charge is assisting in a suicide,” not murder. People v. Kevorkian, 527 N.W.2d 714 (Mich. 1994).

2. Corpus delicti: A death must, of course, be shown to have occurred. But the corpus delicti (i.e., the “body of the crime”) of murder does not absolutely require that a corpse be found. Like any aspect of any crime, existence of death may be proved by circumstantial evidence.

Example: D is known to be on bad terms with V, his grandmother, who has cut him out of her will. V’s ranchhouse burns down one day, and neither V’s corpse nor any bone fragments are found in the rubble. D is convicted of her murder.

Held, conviction affirmed. The fact of V’s death was adequately established by numerous items of circumstantial evidence, including the facts that: none of V’s friends or associates ever heard from her again, the strained relationship between D and V, and D’s actual knowledge of the fire several hours before anyone informed him of it. State v. Pyle, 532 P.2d 1309 (Kan. 1975).

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