Looper and Abandoned Attempt

In this second post about Looper we’re going to delve considerably more deeply into the movie, and with that comes a couple of pretty serious spoilers.  You have been warned.

As you probably know from the trailers or reviews, the movie centers around the conflict between Joe, a Looper, and his future self, who has traveled back in time.  Future Joe wants to kill a child that he believes will grow up to become a terrible criminal, while Joe just wants to kill Future Joe and return to living his life.  One snag in Future Joe’s plan is that there are three children that meet the description he has, and so he decides to kill each of them until he finds the right one.

Future Joe succeeds in killing the first child, who, tragically, is not the ‘right’ one. Future Joe then goes to the home of the second child, breaks in gun drawn and is presumably about to kill him when he stops: Joe has just learned that the third child is the right one, and thus Future Joe learns it at the same time, except as a memory of his past self learning it.

Obviously Future Joe is guilty of murdering the first child.  But is he guilty of the attempted murder of the second?

I. Attempt

As an inchoate offense, attempt is a crime that depends on an underlying crime.  Like solicitation, attempt merges with the underlying crime if the crime is completed.  So one tries—and succeeds—to kill another person, that’s just murder, not attempted murder and murder.  The Model Penal Code defines attempt thus:

A person is guilty of an attempt to commit a crime if, acting with the kind of culpability otherwise required for commission of the crime, he:

(a) purposely engages in conduct that would constitute the crime if the attendant circumstances were as he believes them to be; or

(b) when causing a particular result is an element of the crime, does or omits to do anything with the purpose of causing or with the belief that it will cause such result without further conduct on his part; or

(c) purposely does or omits to do anything that, under the circumstances as he believes them to be, is an act or omission constituting a substantial step in a course of conduct planned to culminate in his commission of the crime.

In this case we’re concerned with (c).  Future Joe committed an act (i.e. breaking into the apartment with a gun and entering the child’s bedroom) that constituted a substantial step in a course of conduct planned to culminate in the commission of a crime (i.e. breaking into the apartment and shooting the child).  And indeed the Model Penal Code lists “unlawful entry of a structure … in which it is contemplated that the crime will be committed” and “possession of materials to be employed in the commission of the crime” as substantial steps.  Thus, we’ve established a reasonable prima facie case of attempted murder.

II. Abandonment

But, as noted earlier, Future Joe abandoned his attempt.  He no longer had any desire to kill that particular child and would presumably have left immediately had other events not intervened.  So is he still guilty of attempt or is abandonment a defense?

It might first be a good idea to consider why abandonment should even be a defense to attempt.  After all, it’s not a defense to other crimes.  If someone steals something and then gives it back, they’ve still committed theft.  Attempt may be different because we want to encourage abandonment before an attempt turns into a completed crime.  On the other hand, wouldn’t we also want to encourage thieves to return their stolen goods?  Despite this somewhat murky rationale, some jurisdictions (and the Model Penal Code) recognize abandonment as a defense to attempt, though typically only if the abandonment is voluntary.  “Abandoning” the attempt just because the police show up or because the intended murder victim turns out to be hard to hit is insufficient.  Here’s the Model Penal Code definition:

When the actor’s conduct would otherwise constitute an attempt under Subsection (1)(b) or (1)(c) of this Section, it is an affirmative defense that he abandoned his effort to commit the crime or otherwise prevented its commission, under circumstances manifesting a complete and voluntary renunciation of his criminal purpose. …

Within the meaning of this Article, renunciation of criminal purpose is not voluntary if it is motivated, in whole or in part, by circumstances, not present or apparent at the inception of the actor’s course of conduct, that increase the probability of detection or apprehension or that make more difficult the accomplishment of the criminal purpose. Renunciation is not complete if it is motivated by a decision to postpone the criminal conduct until a more advantageous time or to transfer the criminal effort to another but similar objective or victim.

That last sentence is the catch: Future Joe’s abandonment would be complete and voluntary except that he simply turned his attention to the third child.  In some sense, he abandoned one attempt only to immediately begin a new one, and so the law considers the abandonment ineffective.  This isn’t abandonment, just changing targets.

III. Conclusion

As you can imagine, Joe doesn’t really have a defense for his attempt to kill the third child.  Defense of others doesn’t work, since the danger is 30 years in the future and futhermore the future is changeable.  And necessity doesn’t work, since that’s generally not a defense to murder.  So despite his “change of heart” regarding the second child, Future Joe is still on the hook for attempted murder.  Well, sort of, as anyone who has seen the movie can attest, but I’ve spoiled enough already.

11 responses to “Looper and Abandoned Attempt

  1. So if Joe succeeded in killing Future Joe, would that be murder or suicide? The mobsters who sent Future Joe back in time to be killed by Joe are guilty either way, since, as you discussed here, inducing someone to commit suicide is still a crime. But would classifying it as a suicide let Joe off the hook?

    • I think it would be murder rather than suicide if Joe killed Future Joe directly (i.e. not by simply killing himself, indirectly killing Future Joe). The biggest reason is that if Joe kills Future Joe then Joe goes on living, which hardly seems consistent with suicide.

      I think Joe and Future Joe are independent people who could, in theory, live separate lives simultaneously in the present (or past, from Future Joe’s perspective). It’s true that things that happen to Joe affect Future Joe (e.g. a wound on Joe’s body will leave a scar on Future Joe’s), but that doesn’t make them the same person anymore than it does conjoined twins.

      • Now here’s a question. Joe and Future Joe settle down in the present. Someone kills current Joe, thus erasing Future Joe from existence. Two counts of murder or just one?

      • But having both of them live in the same present would lead to other problems not discussed in the movie. Does one of them have to get a new social security number (or whatever centralized identification scheme they have in the rather post-apocalyptic US of the movie)? Or would they constantly have problems with identity theft/fraud? Is old Joe responsible for things that young Joe did that are different from the life old Joe originally lived (ie would a background check on old Joe have to turn up things that young Joe is doing in the present)?

        Also, if old Joe were to have remained in the past, rather than be erased (or I suppose Abe, the time travel liason), would he have committed a single criminal act of traveling through time or would it be an ongoing crime of remaining in a location where the traveler is out of time?

      • Todd Gardiner

        Certainly Abe is already doing that in 2044, living a young life (not seen in the movie) and his Future life who was sent back in time from Old Joe’s era.

      • So if you were to take an extremely slow acting poison that would only kill you in 30 years time that wouldn’t be suicide?

      • Philosophy does relatively poorly with the question of identity, as the classic problem of the Riddle of the Ship of Thesus from Plutarch indicates. Judiciary law’s dependence on philosophical underpinnings means that courts can be expected commensurate difficulty in turn.

        That quantum mechanics adds complications fundamentally counter-intuitive to ordinary understanding does not help; politics and legislation tend to come up with relatively wretched answers to “ought” questions when the legislators and polity badly understand the underlying “is” conditions.

  2. If Future Joe learns things in the form of new (old?) memories as Young Joe learns them, shouldn’t he already know that his efforts will be futile? He has to know that when he was younger he defeated a sinister plot of an older version of himself.

    • The movie addresses that with a couple applications of handwavium. Essentially, going back in time makes memory a bit fuzzy, as the future associated with such memories now becomes probabilistic. However, the passage of present-day time collapses them back. One of the probabilistic possibilities is that Young Joe will not actually see the final outcome, but will instead retreat from the conflict, and go off to China to become Old Joe without knowing the exact outcome. So, until Young Joe collapses the waveform with a clearly observed outcome of the conflict, he doesn’t know the outcome.

      Massive spoilers and speculation with follow, ROT13.

      Gurer nccrne gb or gjb znwbe gvzryvarf (be zber rknpgyl, pynff bs gvzryvar) vaibyirq, rnpu pvepyvat onpx gb perngr rnpu bgure, cyhf n guveq zvabe gung qbrfa’g.

      Va jung V’yy pnyy gvzryvar 1 (fubja nf synfuonpx va zvq-zbivr, nsgre fubjvat gur svefg qviretrag bhgpbzr sebz gvzryvar 2), Lbhat Wbr 1 tbrf bhg vagb gur pbeasvryq, naq fvzcyl oynfgf gur ubbqrq Byq Wbr 2 nf ur nccrnef jvgubhg shff, sbe n tbyqra cnlqnl. Lbhat Wbr 1 zbirf gb Puvan, jurer ur ehaf vagb n ornhgvshy jbzra, jub ur snyyf va ybir jvgu, zneevrf, naq znlor rira unf n xvq jvgu. Ng gur raq bs 30 lrnef, gur shgher Zbo genpxf uvz qbja sbe uvf qngr jvgu qrfgval, ohg xvyy uvf orybirq jvsr va gur cebprff bs pncghevat uvz. Ur vf qenttrq gb gur gvzr znpuvar, ohg oernxf serr naq xvyyf gur xvqanccref. Ur ernyvmrf ur unf npprff gb n gvzr znpuvar, naq pna znxr uvf jvsr’f qrngu abg unccra ol gnxvat bhg gur shgher Zbo’f obff gur Envaznxre orsber gur Envaznxre frvmrf cbjre… va gur cnfg. Ur trgf vagb gur gvzr znpuvar, fnaf ubbq.

      Va gvzryvar 2 (oernxcbvag sebz 1 whfg orsber gur synfuonpx), Lbhat Wbr 2 tbrf bhg vagb gur pbeasvryq… ohg gur haubbqrq Byq Wbr 1 nccrnef, hfrf gur tbyqra cnlqnl nf n ohyyrgcebbs irfg, naq xabpxf bhg Lbhat Wbr 2. Ur ehaf, ohg abg gb Puvan; vafgrnq, ur uhagf Byq Wbr 1 naq uvf cnlqnl. Va fbzr fgenaqf, LW2 fvzcyl ehaf, va fbzr BW1 svaqf gur Envaznxre svefg, va fbzr LW2 qbrf. Ubjrire, nyy bs gurfr gvzryvar 2 fgenaqf (nyyhqrq va synfusbejneq) gur Envaznxre’f zbgure zheqrerq (jerpxvat uvf zbeny hcoevatvat naq zbgvingvat uvz gb ybngur ybbcref), gur Envaznxre tenmrq ol n ohyyrg sebz BW1 (juvpu jvyy riraghnyyl or onqyl vasrpgrq, pbfgvat uvz gur wnj) naq syrrvat orlbaq ernpu ol fgbjvat nobneq n genva. Fcrphyngviryl (abg fubja), Lbhat Wbr 2 xvyyf Byq Wbr 1, znxrf uvf jnl va gur jbeyq jvgu uvf tbyqra cnlbss, naq tbrf ba gb orpbzr Byq Wbr 2. Ubjrire, Byq Wbr 2 rvgure qbrf abg zrrg gur ynql va Puvan, be tbrf nabgure jnl jura ur qbrf, be fur qbrf abg qvr jura Byq Wbr 2 vf pncgherq, be ur fvzcyl erzrzoref (creuncf vf unhagrq ol) gur bhgpbzr; va nal pnfr, ur ynpxf fhssvpvrag ubcr sbe tvivat rcvp zbgvingvba gbjneq enqvpny npgvba. Ur vf pncgherq, ubbqrq, naq qhzcrq va n gvzr znpuvar jvgubhg vapvqrag, urnqrq gbjneq n fgnaqneq tbyqra cnlqnl qrfgval jvgu Lbhat Wbr 1 va n pbeasvryq. (Frr cerivbhf cnentencu.)

      Gvzryvar 3 oenapurf bss ng gur raq bs gur zbivr, jura Lbhat Wbr 2 ernyvmrf gurer’f n fvzcyr jnl sbe uvz gb fgbc gur nggnpx ol Byq Wbr 1 ba gur Envaznxre naq uvf zbgure, rfpncvat gurfr qver srrqonpx ybbcf, naq pbyyncfvat gur cebonovyvgvrf vagb n (cerfhzrq) arj naq vzcebirq genwrpgbel.

      Gur znva dhrfgvba guvf yrnirf vf gur vs, ubj, naq jung-zbgvir gur Envaznxre pnzr gb cbjre va gvzryvar 1. Ohg gung’f fznyy cbgngbrf.

      All that’s probably more applicable to the laws of Physics than of statute.

  3. That’s not that happened. He went into the apartment of the second kid on the list. He says sorry to the mother. He then goes into the bedroom, turns on the light, and immediately gets tased by the Gat man, Young Blue (or whatever his name is). He does not suddenly stop. He gets tased.

    • Just before he gets tased he realizes that Cid (the third child) is the Rainmaker. He realizes it because that’s when Young Joe figures it out (because of CID killing Jesse with TK). At that point Future Joe knows there is no point in killing the second child.

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