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Causation - Problems & Considerations

In most conventional criminal law cases, causation is a straightforward matter. Someone commits a criminal action, which is the cause of a crime. However, causation problems can occur whenever criminal liability requires a specific outcome. When the required outcome - such as the burning of a house or the death of a victim - appears to be caused not only by the defendant's actions but also by one or several other factors, causation problems arise.

Causation problems can easily arise in cases of homicide, when not only the defendant's actions, but other factors as well contribute to the victim's death. Of course the majority of homicide cases do not involve causation problems. If A's action inflicts a fatal injury on B, then A caused B's death and is criminally liable. However, if A briefly wraps his hands around B's throat as if to throttle him and B immediately suffers a heart attack, then a problem of causation may arise.

Did A cause B's death? Yes and no. The cause of B's death was actually a heart attack. A's prosecution will probably try to establish that "but for" A's action, B would not have died. But because B actually died of a heart attack, the prosecution will probably have to establish A's action as the "proximate cause" of B's death - the cause of the cause of death - forming a direct connection of liability. This indirect link of causation can cause all sorts of problems in criminal procedure, since it's fairly unclear what, exactly, A did do, besides inspire a heart attack, and what crime he should be charged with. The trial could boil down to a lengthy and difficult debate over A's intentions at the time, his knowledge of B's medical history, personal character and other relative abstracts - and the outcome could be anything from a felony murder conviction to the charges being dropped.

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