To Be or Not To Be
A little kingdom I possess,
Where thoughts and feelings dwell;
And very hard the task I find
Of governing it well.
-- Louisa May Alcott.
...........hmmm....that more or less describes my situation !!
~A Wise Man Said~
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
~When in Lancaster~
Life as PhD Student
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Sunday, July 03, 2011
Is the intention to commit a criminal action important in determining a person’s guilt? Or, is a criminal action in itself or of itself enough to prove a person’s guilt? Or, does the degree of guilt (and therefore punishment) in either case vary?
I was reading Herman Melville’s short story Billy Budd some time ago. More than a story, it is somewhat of a case study in how the letter of the law (in this case military law) can sometimes be at variance with the dictates of the human conscience, and how even when a judgement is ‘right’ in the eyes of the law, it may still seem ‘wrong’ in the eyes of God.
Without going into the exact details, let me summarise the main circumstances of the story. The action is set on board an English war ship in the latter part of the 18th century. Here is Billy Budd, a young sailor who is almost angelic in nature, innocence personified, who obviously cannot even hurt a fly, and there is an experienced, mean, evil minded man on board who somehow gets it into his head to land Billy in trouble, for no particular reason than for the fun his evil nature would derive to see an innocent suffer, and perhaps out of pure envy. The captain of the ship is a well respected, upright, man of principles, whose single-minded objective is to ensure that the ship’s war mission is achieved.
One day, the evil guy in pursuit of his aim to harm Billy accuses him of mutiny (rebellion) in the presence of the captain. The captain does not believe him and turns to Billy to demand an explanation. Billy, caught completely unawares by the accusation and having a tendency to lose his power of speech in overwhelming situations, knocks the evil guy on the forehead. The strength of the blow is such that the evil chap dies on the spot.
The captain is now required to take stock of the situation and pronounce a judgement. It is clear to him that there was no intention to kill and yet the military law of the time that he is duty-bound to uphold, says clearly that when a murder is committed, it deserves nothing but the highest punishment (death penalty). There is no provision in the law to take into account ‘intention’ or lack of it.
The story ends on a very sad note. The captain, in spite of his own conscience, complies with the letter of the law, and holds Billy guilty of murdering a senior officer. It does not matter if Billy intended to kill the officer or not. The officer is dead. Billy must hang.
If Billy was let off alive for killing a fellow officer, it may have led to mutiny, it may have led to more men killing each other, it may have led to the failure of the ship’s mission… no doubt, the military law was in existence to serve the interests of the military and the country at large, and not for securing justice to individuals. When one thinks about it, what should the captain have done?
The story made a powerful impact on me because I couldn’t but ask myself — what would I have done? The emotional side of me wanted to cry that someone as innocent as Billy, innocent as a babe, should have been hanged, for a crime he never intended to commit, for being a victim of circumstances that were forced on him. I only saw him as a poor victim and not a criminal. I did feel that his total lack of intention to commit an offence should have proved him ‘non-guilty’.
What made me think of this story? …the verdict in the Neeraj Grover murder case that was out yesterday. Seems quite unrelated but it actually made me re-evaluate the ethical dilemma posed by Billy’s story.
I have been vaguely following the Neeraj Grover murder case in the papers since it happened 3 years ago—I admit my attention was first drawn to it because of the bizarre and horrifying circumstances of the crime as reported in the media. I remember shuddering when I read that Maria Susairaj, the co-accused, had apparently gone to a mall to buy weapons and a bag, and later both Emile Jerome and Maria cut up Neeraj’s body into “300” pieces, put it into the bag, and burnt it in the jungles of Manor.
The court’s decision to let off Maria with 3 years’ term—which she has already spent in jail—and Emile with 10 years, stumped me to put it very mildly. The reasoning, from what I understood, was that it was a ‘crime of passion’ committed by Emile Jerome when he found his girlfriend Maria in a compromising situation with Neeraj. He apparently had no intention or premeditated plan to kill him. After the deed was done, Maria says that she was ‘pressurised’ to go buy tools and a bag at a nearby mall, which they later used to gruesomely cut up and burn Neeraj Grover.
Maria then landed up at a police station with Neeraj’s friend, as innocent as you please, to file a missing person’s complaint.
Maria has been given a 3 years’ sentence for ‘destruction of evidence’, it would seem, the said destruction of evidence being the act of cutting up the body and burning it. And Emile Jerome has been given 10 years because it was a crime of passion and he apparently did not mean to murder Neeraj.
The fact is, in this Neeraj Grover case, the judge seems to have taken into account ‘intention to commit a crime’ and though in Billy Budd’s case I strongly felt ‘intention’ should have been considered, in this case I feel such a ‘consideration’ has actually led to a dilution of justice. I feel shocked at the lightness with which a crime of such a disgusting magnitude has been dealt with. I feel shocked that Maria walks free today, that Emile will walk free after 7 years.
I do believe that an ‘intention’ to commit a crime should have a bearing in determining a person’s guilt and subsequent punishment. I also feel that when a crime is committed in the face of extreme provocation, it needs to be dealt with leniency. For example, if a woman who is being raped smashes a man’s head in that moment to defend herself, the woman certainly cannot be meted out a punishment for murder like any common murderer.
But, in the Neeraj murder case, could we say Emile acted in the face of extreme provocation, which the phrase ‘crime of passion’ would suggest? It is at once a tricky question because what’s extreme provocation for me may be mild for you. It can be argued that it was extremely provoking for him to see his girlfriend in a compromising situation with another man in her house in the wee hours of the night (it is another matter that the said girlfriend was definitely not acting against her will). Even if we grant him ‘provocation’, what sets this case totally apart for me, and what makes me absolutely unsympathetic towards viewing it as a simple ‘crime of passion’, is what happened ‘after’ the crime was committed.
The brutal, inhuman, degrading, disgusting, horrifying abuse of Neeraj’s corpse, just after the murder was committed, suggests in one word ‘cold bloodedness’—to get intimate with each other after the gruesome deed is done, to go to a mall and buy a weapon for destruction, to cut the body into pieces, to put them in a bag, take it to a jungle and burn it—does this suggest the act of a person who committed a crime in a moment of passion? does this suggest intrinsic innocence gone wrong? does this suggest basic goodness with no intention towards evil or crime? Yes, Neeraj was a dead man already when they mutilated him, but is it a ‘technical’ difference? The moment he was murdered, did a living, breathing man suddenly become nothing more than a piece of ‘evidence’, which the two ‘destroyed’? The intention towards the ‘body’ of this man is not the same as the intention towards a ‘living’ man? The cold bloodedness that is required to kill cannot be established towards the ‘living’ man but what does it show if not cold bloodedness that could actually make them commit what they did later? And, for this horrendous act, Maria walks free today and Jerome will after 7?
Had it been another Billy Budd story, Neeraj Grover’s murderers would have to die without question because the act of taking away a life was committed, whether intentional or not… The utter callousness with which such life was taken, with which such life was destroyed, cannot be equated with innocence that acted in the face of grim provocation or extreme passion. I don’t believe in an eye for an eye… but neither can I come to grips with the fact that I am living in a society and in the ambit of a judiciary where a life means so very little… where the dead deserve so very little… Billy Budd’s imaginary story suddenly seems a lot less heart rending, compared with the real world alternative…