Serne was going bankrupt (aka
"in a state of pecuniary embarrassment"), so he insured his
house for a lot of money, insured the life of his mentally disabled son
for a lot of money, and then set the house on fire.
The place burned to the
ground and two of Serne's sons were killed.
Serne and his accomplice
Goldfinch were arrested and charged with murder.
Remember, to be found guilty
of murder, the prosecutor has to
establish that there was malice aforethought.
At Trial, the Judge instructed
the jury that that one meaning of malice aforethought is the killing of another person by an act done
with an intent to commit a felony (aka felony murder).
Serne argued that he had no intent to commit murder, his only intent was to burn
down a house. The deaths were a complete accident, so he couldn't be
held criminally culpable.
The Trial Court found Serne
and Goldfinch not guilty of murder.
Sometimes juries find people
innocent for reasons which aren't reflected in the trial record.
This was one of the first
cases to describe what is now known as felony murder.
Felony murder is described as an inadvertent killing that
occurs during the commission of another crime.
The judge in this case
narrowed the definition to include only acts that are known to be
dangerous or likely to cause death.
"The definition of the
law which makes it murder to kill by an act done in the commission of a
felony might and ought to be narrowed...Instead of saying that any act
done with intent to commit a felony and which causes death amounts to
murder, it would be reasonable to say that any act known to be dangerous
to life, and likely in itself to cause death done for the purpose of
committing a felony which caused death, should be murder."
The judge suggested that
burning down a house full of people was likely to cause death and
therefore met the definition of felony murder, but the jury didn't see in that way.
FYI, England abolished the felony
murder rule in 1957.
"Where a person kills
another in the course or furtherance of some other offence, the killing
shall not amount to murder unless done with the same malice aforethought
(express of implied) as is required for a killing to amount to murder
when not done in the course or furtherance of another offence."