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Mimishu1995's avatar

Extremely long law question: if Tom did something (not illegal) in the past that led to Alan commiting a crime at present, how is Tom legally responsible?

Asked by Mimishu1995 (14757points) February 11th, 2014

This question is not necessarily a law question. It can be a plot question too, since I want to check for holes in this story idea.

OK, so we have this scenario: it’s the US, 1950. Tom is a criminologist with an unseen sick mind. He love to study about criminals’ mind via observing (and experimenting on) real people. Alan is a criminal. 34 years ago, for some reason (I won’t say what it is) Alan’s father held a grudge against Alan (who at this time was still a baby). Tom came and agreed with the father to set a plan to send Alan to another family. Tom got Alan from Alan’s father, but he sent Alan to a “strange” infertile couple: the wife loved to have a child whereas the husband hated children. As Alan grew up, the father increasingly abused him, while the mother couldn’t do anything to protect him. One day, Alan did something terrible and illegal in an attempt at self-defense (as a result of his father’s mistreatment). Horrified, Alan fled his home and the US altogether. 34 years later, Alan came back to America with a new identity and was now a hitman who didn’t even enter any police suspects list (due to the interaction with criminals and his own childhood trauma). Tom again drew another plan for his experiment: he used a fake name, came and paid Alan to “kill somebody”, then made sure Alan got noticed by the police using various methods and assistance while Alan committed his crime (Tom also made sure during that time his identity remained unnoticed, he was not very well-known among the publish). It only took the police some time to eventually catch Alan.
You can see from the beginning that Tom deliberately led Alan into committing criminal offenses. But none of Tom’s doings seem to be illegal. So how is he legally responsible for the crime Alan directly committed? Can he get away with it, given that Alan never knew who Tom really was and Tom had never let his true identity revealed during Alan’s killing process?

Side question: are there any holes in this idea?

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23 Answers

livelaughlove21's avatar

If I read that correctly, Tom would’ve broken the law by taking someone’s kid and giving it away to another family – unless, somehow, he managed to do it legally. He also broke the law when he solicited a hit on someone – it’s illegal to pay someone to kill someone else.

However, Tom cannot be held responsible for Alan’s crimes. Alan committed the crimes and is therefore the only one legally responsible.

PhiNotPi's avatar

Based on this wiki article, paying someone to kill someone is itself a crime. Potentially, both people can be found guilty of murder.

GoldieAV16's avatar

Wow, confusing. But Tom paid Alan to “kill somebody?” Does that mean he didn’t actually kill anybody (because it’s in quotes)?

If not, they are both guilty of conspiracy to murder. But if Alan did actually kill somebody, under US law they are both guilty of murder.

If you’re asking if Tom could get away with it by using a well hidden identity – of course. People get away with murder all the time.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Tom’s guilty of conspiracy. If you incite someone to a crime you’re responsible for their actions as well.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@Adirondackwannabe But that only applies to the murder. I believe the OP is trying to suggest that Tom is responsible for all of Alan’s criminal behavior because of what he did when Alan was a baby.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@livelaughlove21 yeah that’s right! That’s what I’m trying to suggest.

By the way have anybody answered the side question?

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Interesting angle. I don’t know the law on all of the other crimes.
@Mimishu1995 Have you seen the movie Trading Places?

livelaughlove21's avatar

@Mimishu1995 The holes in the story are the details you left out.

1. Why did Alan’s father hold a grudge against him? (probably not legally relevant, but could be)
2. How did Tom manage to give away someone’s baby “legally?”
3. What crime did Alan commit in response to his new father?
4. Did Alan actually kill the person Tom hired him to kill?
5. Why did Tom want Alan to be caught by the police so badly that he set him up?
6. In what way did Tom “deliberately” lead Alan into a life of crime because of what he did when Alan was a baby?

Mimishu1995's avatar

@Adirondackwannabe No, never heard of it… Is my story idea the same as that film?
1. The answer to 1 contains spoilers, so I deliberately didn’t include it here (this is just an idea for a much bigger story).
3. Alan accidentally killed his father. Somehow he managed to get away from his house, but he was too horrified to even stay in America.
4. Yes. But that person was nowhere related to Tom. It just someone Tom picked up randomly. Unfortunate for Alan, that person happened to be a respectable member of the society.
5. Because he wanted to conduct “the final part” of his “experiment”. Beside, he planned that right after Alan was executed, he would publicized his “research” about criminal mind (with Alan as one of the “individual” he observed for his research). The research, along with Alan’s already famous trial, would caused a lot of attention from the public. It would make Tom famous, considering his current status.
6. I don’t really understand your question. Can you be a little clearer?
And there you have my hole: question 2. That’s what I didn’t think about. Any suggestion for a perfect “baby delivery” in this case?
My answers may also contain holes, so please check them for me.

livelaughlove21's avatar


2. No, you can’t just take a child from its parents and just hand it over to some random family. There are procedures that must be taken for an adoption to go through the state legally. For one, the state has to be involved. If the state were to find out that Tom essentially kidnapped a child and gave it away, he’d be in legal trouble.

Where is Alan’s mom during this time? I suppose if mom dies during the birth (that’s a good reason for his biological father to resent him), he could probably give the kid away without getting caught – this is the 50’s, after all. Stranger things have happened, but that doesn’t make it legal. Also, that sounds a little too much like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

3. Did he kill his father “accidentally” in self defense? If so, there’s probably no crime there. His fleeing the country makes me think that it wasn’t much of an accident in the first place.

5. Okay, so you’re saying that Tom arranged for Alan to be placed with a particular family because he knew that would “turn” him into a criminal? How would Tom ever know that that’s what would happen? Do all children that grow up with abusive fathers turn into killers? No. I don’t think the experiment makes a whole lot of sense.

snowberry's avatar

And he has an assumed ID. That’s also a crime.

stanleybmanly's avatar

The narrative is very convoluted, with so many twists that it’s tough unwind. But one thing is certain. When Tom paid Alan to kill someone, he committed a crime.

Kardamom's avatar

Tom didn’t force Alan to commit the crime, but he did pay Alan to do the crime, so Tom is responsible for his own crime of paying a hit man.

Even though Alan had a terrible childhood, Tom was not responsible for making Alan become a hit man in the first place. That was Alan’s own choice to become a hit man.

stanleybmanly's avatar

Agreed. Tom is guilty at least of attempted murder. Now whether or not Tom is guilty of other crimes would depend on his knowledge and motives in conspiring with Tom’s natural father in passing the kid on. For instance, did Tom cooperate in placing Alan in order to remove him from a resentful parent?. Was Tom aware that Alan’s prospective step-father was a sadist?

livelaughlove21's avatar

I’d like to point out that proving what someone knew or what their motive was would be incredibly hard 34 years after the event took place.

I’d also like to mention that a “motive” isn’t an element of a crime. You don’t need to have a motive to be prosecuted.

stanleybmanly's avatar

@livelaughlove21 Wait a sec. Motive is often THE key to whether or not an incident is criminal. It’s the difference between a dog being tripped over or kicked. Even the dog knows which is the crime.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@stanleybmanly No, the keys to the crime are actus reus (the guilty act) and mens rea (the guilty mind). The latter only means that the crime was intentional or occurred due to reckless or negligent behavior. If I kill someone, the prosecutor does not have to prove my motive (be it monetary gain, etc.), he only has to prove that I committed the murder and that I meant to do it. Motive and mens rea are two separate things. Crimes have elements – actus reus, mens rea, concurrence (which means the actus reus and mens rea occurred at the same time), and causation (meaning your act had to cause harm – i.e. homicide requires the killing of someone) are probably the most common elements. Elements are what needs to be proven in order to convict. Motive is NOT one of those elements.

Television wants you to think that attorneys are in court arguing over motive – they’re not. The law is not concerned with motive. The only reason it’s brought up in court is to sway a jury. Juries love motives.

stanleybmanly's avatar

But wait. The dog dies. So the difference between involuntary dogicide and first degree murder doesn’t hinge on the ability to prove intent?

livelaughlove21's avatar

@stanleybmanly Intent does not equal motive.

The dog is dead. What needs to be proven is that:
1.) Person A kicked the dog (actus reus)
2.) Person A knowingly, intentionally injured the dog (mens rea)
3.) Person A’s intent to hurt the dog occurred in the same timeframe as the dog’s injury or death (concurrence)
4.) Person A caused the death of the dog by kicking it (causation)

The INTENT is number 2. If number 2 was not true, then it would be involuntary. This would be the case if he accidentally kicked the dog. The MOTIVE could be anything – maybe he kicked the dog because it was in his yard and he didn’t want it there, or because he hates dogs, or because the dog stole his lunch, etc. Therefore, intent is not motive. See the difference?

stanleybmanly's avatar

Thank you (sincerely) for explaining the difference. You are absolutely right. I was indeed mixing intent and motive.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@stanleybmanly You’re welcome. :) I’d say most people outside of the CJ/law field don’t know the difference. This was one thing drilled into my head by my Criminal Law professor.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@livelaughlove21 Sorry for coming too late. I want to answer the questions you asked before.
2. Thanks for the information. But the time Alan got transferred was 1916, not 1950 (maybe that would make thing easier for Tom to commit such a crime). I have never watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Still, I feel rather guilty having used the same idea as that film.
3. I forgot to add that at the time of the father’s death there was no witness. So why don’t we think about the possibility of lynching? Alan fled America because he was horrified of his killing and afraid he would be lynched.
Or I think there’s a hole in this idea. Maybe it will be better if Alan didn’t fled America, but just move to another city?
5. If Tom had a theory that there is a high chance that children with abusive fathers can turn into killers and he wanted to testify it, then it can still make sense.
Or maybe I can change Tom’s profile like this: Tom is an intelligent man with a good knowledge of criminology, but as the same time a delusional maniac. In his delusional mind he thinks he is a talented criminologist, and he loves experimenting on real people. Well, that will make more sense about the nature of the “experiment”.

stanleybmanly's avatar

@Mimishu1995 I think the Benjamin Button movie is worth taking up (without commercial interruptions). The premise is of course fantastic, but the feel for New Orleans and the portrayals of the characters is such that it’s one of those movies, that you find yourself dwelling on. There’s something about those scenes with Tilda Swinton in Murmansk that haunt me at the oddest times.

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