Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

Sherlock is the critically-acclaimed BBC adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories in a twenty-first-century setting. The latest episode, “The Reichenbach Fall,” is a re-telling of “The Final Problem,” in which Sherlock, battling with arch-nemesis Moriarty, plunges down the Reichenbach Falls, presumably to his death.  It is the final episode of the second season.

He didn’t die in the original story, of course (it isn’t a spoiler if it was published a century ago, people!), but the following will contain some pretty serious spoilers for “The Reichenbach Fall,” so you’ve been warned.

I. The Set Up

So, Moriarty is back. Had to happen eventually. Suffice it to say that he arranges things so that he meets Sherlock on the roof of a tall building, and tells Sherlock that he’s got people watching both them and Sherlock’s closest friends and acquaintances. If the man watching the roof doesn’t see Holmes jump off the building, he won’t give the order to desist, and the other watchers will open fire. And just to make things a little more interesting, Moriarty puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger, so the only way for that order to be given is for Holmes to jump. Quite a dilemma.

II. Is it a Crime?

Obviously, Moriarty’s done a lot of illegal things here, and if any harm had come to Sherlock’s friends, the criminal liability would be obvious. The question is whether getting Holmes to jump off the building is a crime. He doesn’t push Sherlock, and doesn’t even threaten him with any injury. It wasn’t a “choose how you want to die” situation. The question is whether putting Sherlock in a situation where he had to kill himself (or at least seriously risk it) to save other people is, in itself, a crime.

Yes. The Suicide Act of 1961, which decriminalized suicide, provides that “A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or attempt by another to commit suicide shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.” So while Sherlock is not liable for any crime here–though he would have been prior to 1961, when suicide actually was a crime–Moriarty is liable for Sherlock jumping off the roof.

This would also be the result in many US jurisdictions. Section 210.5 of the Model Penal Code provides for a conviction for purposely causing another to commit suicide by force, duress, or deception, and numerous states have implemented corresponding statutes. For example, Ind. Code § 35-45-1-2 provides that causing another to commit suicide is a Class B felony, and Pennsylvania has adopted the MPC verbatim.

III. Conclusion

Of course, all of this is a bit beside the point, because Moriarty kills himself before leaving Sherlock to his fate. Sherlock, however, would likely not be liable for this, since even though there were some vague threats, Sherlock didn’t do or say anything to suggest that he wanted Moriarty to do this. Quite the opposite, if anything. But if Moriarty had survived, he’d be facing either charges for the murders of Sherlock’s friends, or for Sherlock’s suicide.

Furthermore, if any of Moriarty’s henchmen were aware of the plan to induce Holmes’s suicide, they could have (another) count of conspiracy added to their charges.

11 responses to “Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

  1. Long-time lurker here–excited to see you covering Sherlock!

    I presume the Suicide Act would also cover the murders in A Study in Pink, which leads to a question that’s occurred to me about that episode: what would have happened if Sherlock had not succeeded in covering up that John shot the cabbie? As Sherlock points out, John only fired when he was in imminent danger, but the danger was technically self-inflicted; unlike the other victims, Sherlock knew he could walk away at any time (and very nearly did). He basically chose to risk his life of his own free will.

    At the very least, John would have been on the hook for illegal possession of a firearm, but would he have gotten in any trouble for the actual shooting? And if Lestrade had put two and two together, would Sherlock have been in trouble for covering for John?

    • This actually has less to do with the Suicide Act and more to do with the common law doctrines related to the defense of others. Basically, whatever you can do to defend yourself, you can do to defend someone you reasonably perceive to be in immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury So, if Watson were charged with a crime, the jury would have to decide whether Watson reasonably believed Holmes to be in danger of death or serious bodily injury. Whether Holmes was actually in any real danger is actually not relevant: the question is whether a reasonable person in Watson’s position would have perceived Holmes to be in danger.

      • I was actually referring to the Suicide Act in regard to the cabbie, since the victims all technically killed themselves, but did so under duress.

        I suppose the fact that John didn’t know Sherlock could walk away would be a factor–he had no way of knowing if Sherlock was being forced to take the pill.

      • Being forced to kill yourself under duress is called murder. That you are given a 50:50 chance is irrelevant. If the gun is fake, that’s also irrelevant. The cabbie was a serial killer and the Suicide Act would not be in play.

      • I probably should have read the page before I posted that “Suicide Act is irrelevant” bit. Nonetheless, it would still be murder. Even when suicide was illegal, it would still likely be murder.

        That said, I think that even when suicide was criminal, I’m not sure forcing someone to kill themselves by threatening their friends would mean Moriarty couldn’t be held accountable.

  2. Here’s a real story out of Florida:

    A woman was tired of listening to her drunk husband complaining about how he wanted to die, so she retrieved his gun from another room and gave it to him. She started walking away, and he shot himself. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter but only got five years of probation. No prison time.

  3. You’re argument here is predicated on the fact that Moriarty specifically demanded that Sherlock kills himself, but surely what he’s doing is illegal regardless of what he wanted Sherlock to do? I mean, isn’t threatening someone “I will kill all your friends and family unless you do X” illegal regardless of what X is (and even if X itself isn’t illegal, like “run a marathon”)? It seems to me like it should be!

    And what about the act of hiring the hitmen? Is the act of hiring someone for the purpose of killing someone else illegal, even if for some reason you decide not to do it at the last minute? Isn’t it, I don’t know, “criminal intent to conspire to murder” or something (that’s me trying to smash together as many scary legal words as possible)?

    • And the act of agreeing to act as a hitman on a later signal would be conspiracy to murder? It’s likely that both Moriarty and his henchmen are guilty of numerous firearms offences, too.

      • Just that? Moriarty, in general, appears to be guilty of aiding and abetting multiple crimes in addition to many counts of false imprisonment, murder, tampering with juries and probably stalking. Considering that this is the same world where apparently the C.I.A. sends assassins to kill women in the U.K* I don’t understand why Mycroft didn’t simply have an accident happen while Moriarty was in custody.

        *Instead of simply asking their U.K counterparts to pick her up for them.

      • As the original post noted, most of what Moriarty did is obviously illegal. So it’s not that interesting. Whether or not inducing someone to commit suicide wasn’t quite as obviously illegal, so we focused on that.

  4. Question on season 3:

    What crimes could Charles Augustus Magnussen be charged with?

    Could he be charged with conspiracy assault? Conspiracy murder (its legally murky, but he threatens to publish in his newspaper that someone is an assassin, yet his motive is specifically to put them in very real mortal peril; also, he has Watson kidnapped and thrown in a bonfire, yet he claims that if Sherlock didn’t make it on time, he had a man on-site who would have saved him).

    Seems like he is a more interesting case than Moriarty, even if he is clearly a criminal too.

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