Murder and culpable homicide. What’s the difference? Who should be responsible?

I have only read the newspaper reports of the death of Euan Craig, so I accept I may not have all the information needed to speak in detail about that case, but it’s not going to stop me commenting on the broader issues involved.  From the reports, it appears that a class were waiting in the gym for the teacher to arrive and Euan and his mates were playing about with a softball.   It struck another boy in the face as he came into the gym and he reacted badly, punching Euan in a sustained attack, despite Euan’s repeated apologies even while being punched.  Euan died shortly afterwards from internal bleeding in his brain.

Here is a quote from the BBC Report:

Defence counsel Ian Duguid QC had previously told the court that his client was a quiet boy of good behaviour and had shown “huge remorse”.

He said the authors of a psychiatric report feared that the teenager’s mental health would suffer if he were sent into custody.

“There is no direct benefit to the public of placing him in custody,” he argued.

“There would be a risk to his on going psychological development. It will impact negatively on him.”

Lord Bracadale sentenced Euan’s violent assailant, who pled guilty to culpable homicide, to detention for three and half years:  three and half years doesn’t seem to value the life of the victim very highly.    It is less than might be given for a fraud, where everyone involved is still alive.

On first reading this story, I was intrigued by the defence counsel’s remarks:  ‘his client was a quiet boy of good behaviour’.  In my twenty years experience as a school headteacher, I never once met ‘a quiet boy of good behaviour’ who would respond to an accident, for which an apology had been offered, by a sustained, violent assault on another child.  On the other hand, I met plenty of boys who assaulted other children in very violent ways, living according to the honour code of the street, which demanded that they show no mercy in order to maintain, and live up to, their reputation.

The crime of ‘culpable homicide’ recognises that the actions of one person led directly to the death of the other, but accepts that they did not intend or plan that death – it was an unpredictable or accidental or unlikely consequence of their actions.

Again, quoting Ian Duguid, the defence QC:

“These are consequences which are extraordinary. It comes from an event which might have passed off as just another school fight. It may never have been brought to court if it were not for the tragic injury which was occasioned to him.”

Let’s leave aside for the moment that this appears to have been a sustained assault, rather than a fight…. and I have spent quite a lot of time in my career as a headteacher sorting out the difference between these two.  The important general question that arises here, as in other cases, is “how much responsibility should someone be prepared to accept for the unintended consequences of their actions?”  In discussing this issue with adolescent perpetrators of violent acts, the teachers/social workers/psychologists who worked with them, and with their parents, I often encountered a variety of viewpoints.   These would vary from the extreme at one end of the spectrum, that such actions were a ‘cry for help’ from a damaged child who needed more love/support (and there is often a lot of truth in that) to the other extreme, where only capital punishment of the most mediaeval kind would suffice.

I often had discussions about just these kinds of incidents, in particular where someone had been kicked on the head.  There were a number of deaths in English schools some years ago, particularly involving girls, where the death resulted directly from kicks to the head.  It was possible to use these examples to help the perpetrator and his/her parents to see the possible consequences of their actions.   Surely part of the process here should be about helping the perpetrator to develop a fuller, truer understanding of the events – what happened? who was responsible? what led to them taking the action they did – emotion, peer pressure, socialisation, self-justification?

A car driver drives through a built up area at 40mph. He or she is late for an important meeting. A child runs in front of the car and is killed.  How responsible is the driver?  An armed Palestinian celebrates the ceasefire in Gaza by firing off rounds from his AK47 into the air.  One of the bullets, as it accelerates back towards the earth, hits a child and kills her.  A ship’s captain takes an extra turn to run along the coast to give his passengers a fine view and show off to those on shore, but on this occasion the sea race is stronger than usual and pushes the boat onto the rocks where it is holed and many passengers are drowned as it keels over.  Like a violent assault to the head, these are all irresponsible actions which increase the chance of a ‘tragic accident’, for which the perpetrator must bear some responsibility.

What is learned from such events?  What does the perpetrator learn?  That the perpetrator learns something must be one of the important outcomes of a criminal justice system, whether in school or in a court of law.  Presumably we would wish the perpetrator to learn not to do the same thing again, that such actions run the risk of causing a much more serious consequence than s/he intended.  However what they may learn is that if something worse happens than you intended to happen, then it’s not so serious, in fact it’s not really your fault, because you didn’t intend it. Indeed the adversarial system may encourage perpetrators to believe such a line.

This may well be the message which the community at large, including other potential perpetrators of similar crimes, takes from these events and how they are dealt with. This is the issue which the defence counsel addresses in asserting that there would be no public benefit in holding the perpetrator accountable; perhaps ‘his mental health might suffer if he were sent into custody.’  It is true that the socialisation processes in our custodial system, intended and unintended, might further brutalise a teenager with a propensity for violence.  However there might be mental health consequences of not sending the teenager to custody.  In this case, as in so many others, it seems that a restorative process should be part of our social response.  Rather than forcing victims and perpetrators into contrary adversarial positions, the perpetrator’s penitent actions / remorse / contrition, can become part of the solution, for the victim’s family, and also for the perpetrator him/herself.  In accepting responsibility, s/he sometimes can experience resolution him/herself.   Every occasion in a school setting is an occasion for learning about living.

Of course, in this case a restorative process will make no difference to the victim. The victim is dead, whatever was, and now is, the intention of the perpetrator.  And the thoughtless, or careless, or self-justified, actions of the perpetrator caused his death.

All in all it’s a terrible situation and the best we can do is to honour the victim and those who knew and loved him and to hope that something has been learned.

I mourn Euan Craig.

I pray for him and his family and honour his memory.

I pray for the headteacher and teachers of Rosshall Academy, who now have to help that school community understand what happened, and learn from it – learn about how different people with different values can come to live together in one space, learn about responsibility and risk and learn how to put the values of democratic community living into practice in their daily lives.





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