What is the “actus reus” of murder?
Under British law, the act of murder all rests on the “actus reus” – this is the term that defines whether a killing can be classified as murder or not.
The original 17th century description by Sir Edward Coke, the eminent English barrister, sums up the act of murder as:
“Murder is when a man of sound memory and of the age of discretion, unlawfully killeth within any county of the realm any reasonable creature in rerum natura under the King’s peace, with malice aforethought, either expressed by the party or implied by law, so as the party wounded, or hurt, etc. die of the wound or hurt, etc. within a year and a day of the same”
While the “year and a day” rule has now been disqualified under law (with deaths occurring more than a year after the act more than possible), this definition by Coke is still used in law today.
Therefore, in modern law, the actus reus of murder will take into account whether:
- The defendant did the act or omitted to do a legally recognised duty;
- The act was deliberate;
- The act was unlawful (as opposed to killing in self defence);
- The act was a significant cause of death;
- The death was of a person in being
A murder verdict will rest on the ‘actus reus’ – that is, the decision that the killing was a wrongful act.
On a related note, the verdict of murder will often take into account the intention to kill – otherwise known as mens rea. This intention must be proved not just by the defendant’s motive or purpose, but also when their death is pretty much a certain consequence of their act.
A specific victim doesn’t need to be targeted to define it as murder – for example, a terrorist attack, where a bomb is planted in a public place. In this case, no specific person has been targeted, but the intention kill and maim can be clearly proven.