Cunningham broke into a house
and stole the gas meter out of the basement.
In the process, he broke the
pipes releasing methane gas. The gas escaped into another apartment and
almost poisoned someone next door.
There was a cut off valve
right next to the main, but Cunningham didn't turn it.
Btw, the meter contained
coins because back then if you wanted gas, they didn't send you a bill,
you just put money in the meter.
Cunningham was arrested and
charged with burglary and attempted murder.
Cunningham pled guilty to
the burglary charge, but argued that he didn't realize that gas was
The Trial Court convicted
Cunningham of attempted murder. He appealed.
The Trial Court found that
Cunningham was 'acting wickedly' when he stole the gas meter. Therefore
he met the requirement of having 'malicious intent' to be convicted of
attempted murder under British law.
The specific Statute said,
"whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously administer...poison...so as thereby to
endanger the life of a person shall be guilty of a felony."
The Appellate Court reversed
and remanded for a new trial.
The Appellate Court found
that there was no mens rea in
Mens rea means that the defendant intended, expected,
or should have expected that their actions would produce a particular
Since Cunningham didn't
realize that gas was escaping, he had no intent to poison the neighbor.
The Court acknowledged that
Cunninham 'acted wickedly' in stealing the gas main. However, that is
not enough to establish mens rea.
The question to ask is whether Cunningham foresaw that the removal of the
gas meter might cause injury to someone but nevertheless removed it.
The Court found that the
word maliciously in the British
law should be taken to mean 'with foresight of consequences' and not
You wouldn't consider it a
crime if a person was digging in their backyard and accidentally hit a gas
line. In this case, Cunningham was stealing something and accidentally
hit a gas line. It's kind of the same thing in a way.
Should it matter what the
initial activity was? Especially since the person will be punished
separately for the initial crime?
The Model Penal Code gives very specific definitions for certain
terms to make it easier for courts to interpret Statutes.
The decision in this case
about the level of culpability would probably be the equivalent of reckless under the Model Penal Code.