The National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) decisions to charge accused motorists with murder instead of culpable homicide (an act of killing not regarded as murder) in the event of a crash where someone was killed, has caused great confusion. Many people believe that car accidents resulting in death are regarded as culpable homicide as no one would deliberately crash his or her car to kill someone.
Within the NPA, there were different opinions, but this was preceded by an intensive and interrogative consultative process.
The role of the prosecutor
According to the Criminal Procedure Act, the prosecution may prefer any charge, as long as it has reliable and admissible evidence to substantiate its case. The prosecution may also use any prosecutorial strategy to present a formidable case. The NPA’s aggressive stance is based on three factors: legal principle, sentencing incentive and the need to ensure social responsibility among motorists.
When is it culpable homicide?
The charge of culpable homicide requires negligence. This means the prosecution must prove that the driver was careless when causing the accident, which resulted in death.
Someone convicted of this charge is usually fined or given a suspended sentence, which is non-custodial. Only in rare cases of extreme negligence the accused would be given a direct term of imprisonment.
This does not sit well with the members of the community because a non-custodial sentence where a life has been lost is considered to be lenient and inappropriate. However, the conduct of the accused lacks the required element of intention to cause such death. Public frustration on this score is understandable in view of the soaring rate of deaths on our roads.
When is it murder?
So, how do we explore the criminal law to address this challenge? A murder charge requires direct and indirect forms of intention to stand up in court. The approach is that in instances where we can prove that a motorist has had some form of intention to cause death, the charge of murder is appropriate.
An example is the case of the motorist who ran away from the police and collided with pedestrians, killing four. Under normal circumstances, he would have been charged with culpable homicide but because he exceeded the speed limit to avoid the police, he knew he might lose control of the car; that there may be pedestrians on the road; and that people may die because of a crash.
The NPA will be more aggressive in its approach to irresponsible drivers in the coming months. We hope the public will support our stance as we all have the interests of the road users at heart.