Crime XXXIV – Diminished Responsibility III

Earlier on we had said that excessive drinking or consumption of alcohol alone while it may impair the accused’s ability to think and reason clearly will not fall under the category of diminished responsibility but what if the accused suffers from depression and commits murder while he or she was drunk or after he or she had been drinking excessively?

In R v Fenton (1975), the accused after he’d been drinking heavily shot a policeman and drove off in his car to a club where he shot and killed more people, 3 more to be precise. The accused was charged with murder and raised the defense of diminished responsibility.

Under S. 2 of the Homicide Act 1957 excessive drinking will only give rise to a defense if “it either causes damage to the brain or produces an irresistible craving so that consumption is involuntary”.

In situations where the consumption of alcohol will not give rise to a defense but the defendant suffers from some type of mental impairment the court will ignore or set aside the fact that the accused had been drinking and look solely at the mental illness to determine if that mental illness was substantial enough to constitute an abnormality of mind that give rise to a defense. In this instance, it was decided that it did and the accused was convicted of manslaughter.

In Walton v The Queen (1978) (Privy Council) the accused shot and killed a passenger in a car. The accused was charged and convicted of murder and the accused appealed. The appeal was dismissed and the court held that the accused was guilty of murder.

The jury when deciding whether to convict for murder or otherwise is entitled to take into account not only the medical evidence that is submitted by the doctors but also of all the facts surrounding the death and the jury can if it chooses, ignore the medical evidence if it finds that the medical evidence is not entirely convincing.

Medical evidence in most instance is conclusive, in this day and age anyway, but a jury can if it chooses to, ignore it, especially if it feels that the medical evidence may have been tampered with.

In R v Vinagre (1979) the accused suspected that his wife was having an affair with a plainclothes policeman though there was no evidence to suggest that they were having an affair and in a fit of jealousy the accused stabbed his wife 34 times thereby killing her.

The accused was charged and the trial judge accepted the plea for diminished responsibility and hence his life imprisonment was reduced to 7 years. Overall however unfounded jealousy is not a defense and it only becomes a defense under diminished responsibility when it creates a clear mental imbalance.

In addition to that jealousy can only be raised as a defense in an existing relationship or in a relationship that is very much alive. It is almost impossible to plead jealousy if the relationship had ended and the accused is still for some reason or other possessive of his former girlfriend or ex-partner.

In R v Sutcliffe (1981), the case concerns the trial of Peter Sutcliffe the Yorkshire ripper. There was overwhelming medical evidence that was presented to corroborate the contention of the defense that the accused was a paranoid schizophrenic. The judge however ruled in line with the decision in Walton v The Queen (1978) (Privy Council) that the jury were entitled to disregard the medical evidence and the jury accordingly returned a verdict of guilty of murder or guilty of multiple murders.

R v Gittens (1984) reaffirms the decision R v Fenton (1975). In R v Gittens (1984) the accused who was suffering from depression, beat his wife to death after which he returned home and killed his stepdaughter. At the time, he’d been drinking while he was, at the same time, on medication for his depression and often the two don’t agree i.e. anti-depressants don’t go well with alcohol and can easily raise the level of intoxication.

The accused was held to be guilt of manslaughter and the test to be applied was whether the mental illness was sufficient to drive the accused to kill without the consumption of alcohol.

Copyright © 2018 by Dyarne Ward

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