Can a Person Be Guilty of Murder for Making a False Rape Accusation?

gun1a.jpgToo bad I’m not teaching criminal law this semester, as this case would surely be a topic of discussion. From the Associated Press:

Darrell Roberson came home from a card game late one night to find his wife rolling around with another man in a pickup truck in the driveway.

Caught in the act with her lover, Tracy Denise Roberson — thinking quickly, if not clearly — cried rape, authorities say. Her husband pulled a gun and killed the other man with a shot to the head.

On Thursday, a grand jury handed up a manslaughter indictment — against the wife, not the husband.

The husband has two possible defenses. First, he could be acting under the heat of passion, which would reduce a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter. This would not, however, justify a failure to indict him. He would just be liable for a lesser crime than murder. Second, he could be acting in defense of his wife. This would be a full defense, and it would be the most plausible reason why the grand jury declined to indict him. The facts in the AP story are ambiguous as to whether he would be entitled to a claim of defense of others:

When Tracy Roberson cried that she was being raped, LaSalle tried to drive away and her husband drew the gun he happened to be carrying and fired several shots at the truck, authorities said.

If Darrell Roberson shot LaSalle at a time when he was fleeing and when Roberson believed his wife was no longer in danger, then his defense of others claim would fail. It is not clear whether his wife was still in the truck at the time he shot the man.

The case against Tracy Roberson is more interesting. The facts suggest that she falsely cried out rape since she appeared to be having an illicit affair with LaSalle (though this doesn’t necessarily mean that she wasn’t being raped on this occasion):

The December night before the shooting, Tracy Roberson sent LaSalle a text message that read in part, “Hi friend, come see me please! I need to feel your warm embrace!” according to court papers. LaSalle apparently agreed. . . .

His wife also was charged with making a false report to a police officer — for allegedly saying she was raped — and could get up to six months behind bars on that offense.

The wife might be guilty of manslaughter if she recklessly cried out rape and it caused LaSalle’s death. However, the difficulty will be proving causation — it must be reasonably foreseeable that by crying out rape, it would result in her husband shooting LaSalle. Proving causation when another person must make an independent decision about whether to act can be tricky, as that person’s decision often breaks the chain of causation. More facts are needed for a better analysis, but the case certainly presents a very interesting scenario.

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6 Responses

  1. Steve says:

    This is very similar to part of a hypo from my fall crim exam, except that was a daughter who was screaming as she ran from a paparazzi, and the dad (may have) thought it was a rape attempt.

  2. Michael Lee says:

    It’s hardly a basis for comment on your article but I once saw this same scenario on a television crime-drama. In that story, the wife was found not guilty because her motive was to disinform the husband not silence the only witness. She argued she could not know her husband would act beyond forgiveness and understanding. The facts presented offer no reason why this case might unfold differently.

  3. Colin says:

    A fun criminal law refresher. A couple of questions. Respecting the claim against Darrell, would his defense of others claim also fail if he didn’t try to cause his wife to retreat before using deadly force? I suppose it may have appeared from Darrell’s perspective that Tracy could not have retreated in complete safety at the time of the attack—especially if she was still in the truck with LaSalle. Respecting the question of whether Tracy’s cry of rape caused LaSalle’s death, I agree that the central inquiry is whether Darrell’s shooting was an unforeseeable intervening cause that broke the chain of causation. Perhaps Tracy didn’t know that Darrell owned or possessed a gun. Under those circumstances, the result may have been too remote or accidental. A question: since Tracy is being charged with involuntary manslaughter, will the prosecution have to prove that the result is not too remote or accidental from what Tracy consciously risked? Or is it enough that the prosecution proves that the result was not too remote or accidental from what Tracy should have been aware she was risking?

  4. David says:

    Her mens rea seems to be, at most, recklessness. Given the sheer improbability of the facts, I’d say prosecution here is a stretch.

    Moreover, the selective prosecution of the wife instead of the husband strikes me as punishing her more for infidelity than murder. It’s indicative of a misogynist prosecutorial mindset.

  5. Misogyny is not a part of this case says:

    No, the prosecution wants to hold someone accountable and the wife is most morally responsible.

  6. Lew says:

    An earlier post: “Moreover, the selective prosecution of the wife instead of the husband strikes me as punishing her more for infidelity than murder. It’s indicative of a misogynist prosecutorial mindset.”

    Approaching the situation with that prejudice is totally irrational.

    Apparently the husband, in the eyes of the prosecutor, was defending his wife. The wife caused Mr. LaSalle’s death as certainly as if she had been driving drunk and killed him in a collision. What she did can easily be compared with yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater.