Murder where nobody knows who's the killer

Let’s say ten people, for whatever reason, agree to murder somebody. Each, however, is reluctant to do the deed themselves; so they engineer things such that they all press a button at the same time, but it’s randomly decided which of these buttons actually triggers the killing mechanism—say, a gun pointed at the victim’s head. There’s no record of which button was active at any given moment.

Consequently, there’s no way to find out who’s the actual killer: all ten did the same thing, but only for one of them did that have a direct causal connection with killing the victim. However, knowledge of precisely who it was has effectively erased.

  1. In such a case, what would be the legal situation? I mean, everybody involved could probably be tried for conspiracy to murder, but are there any other charges that could be brought against them?

  2. Such a scenario has surely been proposed before, either in fiction or in crazy people discussing outlandish hypotheticals on the internet. Do you know any examples?

wilful murder/murder (depending on jurisdiction)

In most jurisdictions they would all be legally guilty of murder. It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger.

There have been many cases where several people join together to commit a robbery, someone gets shot and dies. The whole team can be and have been convicted for murder, including the getaway driver who wasn’t in the building and wasn’t even armed.

An example of the scenario is certain depictions of the death penalty by electric chair. Three (or more) people each pull a switch at the same time. Only one of them is actually wired, and that starts the current. So nobody knows who actually killed the victim. I don’t know if thjis was ever done in real life, but I’ve seen it in several movies.

I didn’t know that, thanks! So in order to be convicted of murder, you don’t actually have to have caused anybody’s death—very interesting. Is the justification for this that you’ve at least tacitly accepted the possibility of death?

You need to read ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by AgathaChristie.

I think it’s because you had the means, the motive, and the malice aforethought, all the facets of first degree murder.

I don’t know if it’s ever happened in real life, but while it’s not quite like your scenario, I’ve read a few works of fiction about murder pacts, where people draw lots, and the one who gets that black dot, or whatever, has to murder someone who wronged the whole group. Only the actual murderer knows who did it.

Off the top of my head, I can think of one where five women who were tortured in a concentration camp meet the man who “experimented” on them, and he has lied his way into US citizenship. Rather than report him, they decide to kill him, and they do it by lots. I can think of another one where several women were raped, and police error sets the rapist free, so they decide to kill him. Those stick out in my head, because women were doing the killing, but I’m sure there are plenty involving men.

I can’t be bothered looking it up and it will vary in different jurisdictions, but here the wilful murder statute says something along the lines of 'if somebody does an act intending to cause death and the person dies, they are guilty of wilful murder". Here the people intend for somebody to be shot upon the pressing of the buttons. Each has intent, the death occurs, each is guilty of wilful.

There are different forms of murder -the robbery example above is what’s known as “felony murder” which means that if you commit an indictable offence and somebody dies during the commission of that offence, you (and all of the parties to the felony) are guilty of murder. There’s murder by gross negligence, which could be rigging up a “button-shooting-machine”, murder also includes actions causing death where you don’t intend to cause death but only grievous bodily harm. Rigging up dangerous things causing somebody’s death will get you pinged for murder…

(people usually think of murder as meaning wilful murder (or first degree murder in the US), but it’s much broader. Wilful means you intended to kill and you did. You’ve got that in your scenario.

As you say, what you describe is conspiracy to kill someone, so of course all of them can be convicted, in the same way the person who pays for a hired killer can be convicted of murder, even though that person hasn’t “caused” the death (as you are characterizing it).

Thanks for remediating my naivety, people!

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s quite the same—there is a causal link, in that without the person hiring the killer, the victim would’ve lived. But without nine out of ten people pressing the button, the victim still would’ve died, so any of those isn’t connected to the outcome in that sense at all.

In fact, what would happen to those that chickened out, and didn’t push the button? Would that change anything? What if everybody claimed they chickened out? Seems to me that it ought to matter, somehow, who actually did the deed. I mean, if ten people aim a gun at somebody, but only one shoots, they’re not all guilty in the same way, are they?

Isn’t the above electric chair scenario supposed to be how a firing squad works?

You line up 10 or so guys and hand them preloaded rifles and 8 are blanks but no one knows who had the live shots?

A variation I recall reading about in a novel. It recounts a supposed historical incident in China where several jewelers wished to eliminate a rival and did so by restraining him then one by one biting him in turns until he died. Since no single bite killed him the idea was to distribute blame so no one person was the murderer.

There’s no one answer to the hypotheticals you are putting. Law is made by judges applying the previous cases and the statute law to the particular facts as established by the evidence given in court. It depends on the facts and, even on established facts, different judges may disagree about how the law applies.

Not really. What a chickener-outer would need to do is definitely positively distance themselves from the agreed course of action. They’d have to leap up and say “I’m not doing this! This person should not be killed, and I’m not going to be a party to this madness! I’m going home and I suggest you all regain your senses and do the same. Bye-bye” and leave.
Remember that the conspiracy to commit (wilful) murder is an offence in and of itself. The minute everybody’s agreed what they’ll do and they’ve done something to make it happen (bought the gear to make the "shooting do-dad, bought bullets, whatever) you are liable for the conspiracy.

What these people have agreed is to kill somebody by using some elaborate “shooting device”. If everybody chickened out, nobody got shot, but they’d still be up for the criminal conspiracy. If the person got shot (ie the “right” button got pushed, and at least one participant pushed), it doesn’t matter if any individual claims not to have pushed, fronting up and participating would be enough. Having agreed that the person was to die by this elaborate method, and being there, you can’t say that you didn’t have a gun and didn’t shoot. That wasn’t the agreement. This ridiculous James Bond villain scenario was. :smiley:
“The deed” isn’t shooting somebody. It’s turning up to a button-pressing event, having agreed to press buttons and kill somebody that way. Claiming you didn’t press doesn’t make you any less of a participant.
There are cases where a gang of people beat somebody up. If they acted in concert, you don’t get to say “I only hit lightly” or “I only hit once” to avoid conviction. If there’s evidence to support that you were only a “bit player”, that may be taken into account in sentencing, but it doesn’t get you out of conviction, if you agreed to go marauding around and beating people up. You’d have to speak up and LEAVE.

EDIT: firing squads and the like are not guilty of any offence by legislative exemption. As I understand it, they make it so no one person knows that they have fired the fatal bullet or pushed the syringe with the deadly poison for the psychological well-being of the executioners so they don’t have to dwell on it too much.

Not quite the same scenario, as everyone involved knew exactly who had stabbed the victim.

You’re right, of course. But I’m not looking for ‘word of god’ on this, so I do appreciate your informed speculation!

It’s just interesting—and admittedly, somewhat odd—to me that nine of the ten could chicken out, and it’s solely due to the tenth whether the other nine are up for murder charges (instead of merely ‘conspiracy for’). In a way, to Johnny Chicken, who ended up not pushing the button, it’s dependent on facts entirely beyond his control whether he’s tried, and presumably found guilty, for murder—in the scenario when everybody chickens out, there’s no murder to be tried for, while in the scenario where Jimmy Killer pushes the button, which happens to be connected to the trigger mechanism, Johnny Chicken seems to face the same punishment as Jimmy Killer.

I’m not saying that I think that’s wrong, or that I have a better idea regarding how to handle such a case, but I do have to say that it goes against my instinctive judgment a bit.

But it’s not beyond Johnny Chicken’s control. He can go to the cops and stop the murder, he can tell everyone in the group to stop, and so on.

If you’ve driven your car onto the road and pointed it at the little old lady in the middle of the street, it’s not beyond your control whether you hit her or not. Sure, now you have to take an affirmative step to avoid hitting her. You have to put on the brakes or turn the wheel. If you allow things to continue without intervening the old lady is going to die. Since you’re the one who deliberately created those circumstances, it’s up to you to take the steps to stop those circumstances. You can’t just say “Yeah, I told her to stand in the middle of the road, I got in my car, I gunned the engine, I drove it towards her, but then I jumped out. So there was no way I could stop it from happening! It’s not my fault!”

Just because you changed your mind after you jumped out and have no way to stop the speeding car, you’re still responsible. If you change your mind after having pulled the trigger of a gun and the bullet is speeding towards the victim, it doesn’t matter. You can also change your mind when the victim is lying there with a hole in the chest bleeding to death, and it doesn’t change anything.

If you set up the Rube Goldberg death trap and strap the victim in, and then change your mind, it’s not enough, just like it isn’t enough to change your mind after you pull the trigger and the bullet is flying through the air.

A person with an axe chases his victim intending to kill them with it. The victim runs into the street and is hit by a bus and dies. The person with the axe will be charged with murder, even though he never touched the victim with the axe.

According to Wikipedia, it’s done both ways. Sometimes all but one has a blank, in other systems all but one has a live cartridge.

Three guys conspire to commit armed robbery. The police shoot one of them dead. The other two get charged with felony murder.

That’s exactly where the analogy breaks down, though: in your case, a death will occur if no action is taken; in the button example, if Johnny Chicken doesn’t press his button, whether or not a death occurs depends on another’s actions.

What’s throwing me off is simply that Johnny Chicken’s identical actions lead to different levels of culpability, depending on the actions another takes.