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?
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.
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.
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.