The Desirability of Medical Evidence in Proof of Commission of Culpable Homicide (Murder)

CONTRIBUTED By Iyanuoluwa Samuel, Afolabi (Esq.)

INTRODUCTION:

In Nigerian criminal jurisprudence, the standard of proof in a trial remains proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This demands that it is not enough for the prosecution to suspect a person of having committed a criminal offence, there must certainly be evidence (admissible evidence) which identified the person accused with the alleged offence. There are three ways by which the guilt of an accused person can validly be established or proved beyond reasonable doubt and each of the ways is sufficient for such proof. They are:

  • Evidence of eye-witnesses or direct evidence;
  • Confessional Evidence or confession by an accused person; or
  • Circumstantial Evidence.

Where, however, a person is charged with the offence of murder (or culpable homicide punishable with death), there is a need to adopt any of the above ways to establish the following conjunctive elements:

  • That the deceased person died;
  • That his/her death was caused by the accused person; and
  • That accused person intended to either kill the victim or cause grievous bodily harm.

In establishing the essential elements listed above, there is importantly a place for medical evidence, this is the crux of this discussion.

MEDICAL EVIDENCE & THE RELEVANCE OF SAME

In a murder charge, the prosecution must be extremely careful in the assemblage of evidence and in the prosecution of the case. The Court is also under a duty to be circumspect in order not to allow an innocent person to be condemned to death as much as it should not allow the guilty to go scot-free.

As mentioned earlier, a charge of murder can only be proved if some three salient elements have been established, meaning, if ‘A’ is charged to have killed ‘B’, it must be established in trial that: ‘B’ is dead, ‘B’s death must have been caused by ‘A’ and ‘A’ intended to either kill ‘B’ or cause ‘B’ grievous bodily harm. These elements, as plain as they may appear could turn knotty for the prosecution in a charge of murder. That a man is dead is obviously a matter of fact, a fact which could be proved by the production of a post-mortem report or evidence of witnesses who state that they knew the deceased and attended the burial or saw the dead body. It suffices to say that the fact that death occurred can be proved through any positive evidence to the effect that the deceased has in fact been killed.

The challenge, more often than not, has to do with the second element, i. e. establishing a causative link between the acts/conducts/omission of the alleged murderer and the death of the deceased.

WHERE MEDICAL EVIDENCE IS NECESSARY:

Where ‘A’ deals a fatal blow on ‘B’, say with a club or iron rod, and ‘B’ immediately collapses and dies as a result of the blow, it is quite easy to conclude that ‘A’ caused the death of ‘B’, the cause of death can properly be inferred that the wound inflicted caused the death. Now a more detailed scenario might be problematic to the prosecution and the Court.

Say: ‘A’ cuts ‘B’ on the arm with a sharp knife, ‘B’ does not seek medical attention to treat the cut but rather opted for self-medication, and subsequently, the cut led to an infection, and ‘B’ dies after a few days. Now it is not an issue that the first element has been satisfied (that B is dead); rather, can it be said that A caused the death of B? This could only be proved with the aid of medical evidence (expert opinion) to the effect that B’s death could only have occurred and did in fact occur through the cut inflicted by A. As a matter of fact, A could have died from pneumonia, or through other means, the prosecution in this scenario would be throwing away their case without involving a post-mortem result or the involvement of a medical expert to the effect that A in fact caused the death of B. Causation can only be established through medical evidence in this respect.

The principle of causation or link in a criminal charge of murder is to the effect that the prosecution must show that the initial assault, attack, or act of the accused person in a criminal case was or is responsible for the subsequent death or demise of the person attacked, or caused injury though the person did not die immediately or so, soon after the unlawful act of the accused person. Where there is a break in the chain of causation, then the second element fails and the accused person must be acquitted. This was accorded judicial favour by the Supreme Court in IKONO V. STATE (2021) 13 NWLR (Pt. 1792) 185 @ 203-204, paras. E-C, wherein the Court submitted thus:

“In order to hold an accused person criminally responsible, the chain of causation must not be broken. Once there is a broken link in the chain of causation, that broken link must be resolved in favour of the accused as it affects the actus reus of the offence. In other words, where the injury which caused the death is not the proximate, legal or direct cause of the death of the deceased, the benefit of the doubt must be given to the accused. Again, where there is more than one possible cause of death, the benefit of the doubt must be given to the accused because the available evidence in such a situation would not pin the accused down to the death of the deceased. This is because there is an intervening or supervening cause, in Latin expressed as novus actus interveniens and nova interveniens respectively.

DISPENSING WITH MEDICAL EVIDENCE

It is settled beyond equivocation that medical evidence could be dispensed with in certain instances, in fact, it is not a prerequisite where there are other cogent facts irresistibly establishing that the acts of an accused person (and nothing more) caused the death of the deceased.

In other words, the writer concedes that Medical Evidence is desirable in establishing the cause of death in a case of murder; however, it is not essential or a sine qua non in a situation where there are facts sufficient enough to show the cause of death to the satisfaction of the court. Medical evidence can in fact be dispensed with where evidence shows that the victim died in circumstances which leave no doubt as to the manner or as to the cause of the death of the deceased victim, i.e. that the act of the accused resulted in the death of the deceased. Where the death is instantaneous or almost so, then medical evidence ceases to be of any practical or legal requirement or necessity. For instance, where the evidence showed that the deceased died not too long after injuries were inflicted on him by an assailant, and there was no evidence of any intervening factor that could have caused or aggravated the death, then the death of the deceased could be regarded as instantaneous since there has not been any break in the chain of causation that could be attributed to the death of the deceased, besides the injuries inflicted on him by the assailant. In the circumstance, the non-tendering of a medical report by the prosecution could not be regarded as fatal to its case at the trial Court. See TOBI V. STATE (2019) 8 NWLR (PT. 1673) 74; BEN V. STATE (2006) 16 NWLR (PT. 1006) 582

CONCLUSION:

The Prosecution owes it a duty to establish that the acts of an accused person and nothing more led to the death of a deceased, since every doubt raised in the course of trial must necessarily be resolved in favour of the accused person as a matter of law. In the discharge of their responsibility in this respect, the need to call a medical expert could be circumvented where facts before the Court unequivocally lead to the conclusion that the deceased could only have died through the acts of the accused person.

Key terms: Homicide, Murder, medical evidence, Medical law.

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