If you planned on killing someone and they ended up dying, but not directly as a result of your actions, are you still guilty of murder?
This question was explored in the famous case case of Thabo Meli v The Queen (1954) which took place in ‘Basutoland’, a former British colony in South Africa.
The case centres around four men who plotted to kill another man. The four defendants invited their intended victim to a hut and encouraged him to drink beer until he was drunk. They then hit him over the head, and planned to fake an ‘accident’ so that they would escape any unpleasant legal consequences.
The blow was supposed to kill the man, but it only rendered him unconscious.
Assuming the man was dead, the defendants rolled his body off a cliff and moved items around to make it look like a tragic accident.
Medical evidence later established that the man later died from exposure, not from the knock on the head or fall from the cliff.
The plan quickly unravelled as the perpetrators found themselves facing criminal charges for murder. One of the defendants was named Thabo Meli, and it is from him that the case derives its name.
But the men – or rather their criminal defence lawyers – had a unique argument for why the men should be acquitted: they argued that their clients were not guilty because the man had died well after the acts that intended to cause his death, and not as a direct result of those acts.
The reasoning behind the defence is that the following two elements must be present in any murder:
- The physical act of killing; and
- The mental element of intention.
It was pointed out that the men committed two separate acts: attacking the man in the hut and rolling his body off the cliff.
They submitted that at the time the man was struck over the head, the intention to kill was present, but the man was not actually killed.
They further argued that at the time the man actually died from exposure, the intention to kill was no longer present.
The ultimate submission was that the men could only be found guilty of ‘culpable homicide’ rather than the more serious charge of murder.
Did it Work?
Unfortunately for Thabo Meli and his companions, the inventive defence did not work.
The Privy Council found that dividing the conduct into two separate acts was not possible, and that it was really just one transaction. The technicality that Thabo Meli relied on was not accepted, with Lord Reid stating:
“There could be no separation such as that for which the accused contend, so as to reduce the crime from murder to a lesser crime, merely because the accused were under some misapprehension for a time during the completion of their criminal plot.”
The case of Thabo Meli forms part of Australia’s common law and is still a principle relied on by Australian courts up until the present day.
In fact, a case decided by the Supreme Court of NSW in June this year quoted Thabo Meli with approval.
In that case, an elderly woman was found dead near her home in Villawood, NSW with duct tape wrapped around her nose and mouth. It was common ground that the woman’s son had strangled her, and then applied the duct tape.
However, the defence argued that the woman was strangled until unconscious, but was not dead when the duct tape was applied. They submitted that the defendant applied the duct tape to shock her other son who, he presumed, would find his mother bound in that way. They contended that the defendant had no intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm to his mother when he applied the tape, and could not therefore be guilty of murder.
The question was whether the defendant was guilty of murder, or the lesser offence of manslaughter.
Citing the case of Thabo Meli, Justice Button found that there did not need to be a direct correlation between the mental element and the physical act of murder in order for a murder charge to be established.
Accordingly, he found that murder was the appropriate charge even if it had been accepted that the defendant did not intend to murder his mother when he applied the duct tape.