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Taking your victim as you find them: When pre-existing cancer kills the victim, but it’s still murder

The Paul Blueitt case is a reminder of how encompassing the law related to murder can be. The facts of the case were unusual and brutal. The victim was a shopkeeper who was subjected to what the police described as an “horrendous assault”. The victim was suffering from cancer at the time. She was beaten to the head so badly in the incident that it was impossible for doctors to treat her worsening condition. She therefore succumbed within weeks to the cancer which could have been treated had she not been so badly beaten.

While shocked by the level of violence and the unpleasantness of the case, there may also be surprise amongst the public that the defendant could be convicted of murder in these circumstances. Wasn’t it the cancer that killed this unfortunate lady?

To be guilty of murder, a person must intend to kill or do really serious harm. And a person must die as a result. They need not die straight away. It used to be that the victim must die within a year and a day for a person to be prosecuted for murder. The Law Reform (Year and a Day Rule) Act 1996 changed this because of advances in medicine and the increased ability of doctors to keep people alive.

But the act of the defendant must be the substantial cause of death. No doubt that point was the subject of much consideration. The prosecution argued that although the victim had cancer – and it was this disease which ended her life – it was the act of this defendant in beating her to the head that ultimately killed her. The injuries his behaviour caused prevented treatment of the cancer and so he is responsible for her death from this illness.

So it is not a defence that the victim in this case only died of these injuries because of the cancer already in her body. Defendants must take their victims as they find them.