Morning Glories is the ongoing 2010 series from Image about a group of “brilliant but troubled” high school students who enroll in Morning Glory Academy, some kind of exclusive prep school. Very, very bad things happen at MGA, and the series is a kind of supernatural mystery drama somewhat reminiscent of the first season of Lost. The first twelve issues are out in hardcover, the next seven are out in trade, and the most recent trade is available for pre-order and should be out in a week or two.
This post is about a flashback that occurs in issue # 7 and contains some pretty major spoilers, so read with care. But the substance of the post has to do with homicide and related defenses.
I. The Homicide
This issue centers around Zoe, adopted from India, and who wanted to get into Morning Glory Academy and hang out with the cool kids. In issue # 7, we see a flashback to an event from her past, presumably her freshman or sophomore year, since all the students at MGA seem to enroll when they turn sixteen. Anyway, Zoe stumbled onto a fellow student and cheerleader being assaulted by a teacher. She hit the guy over the back of the head with a chair, accidentally killing him. But it turns out that Zoe did not interrupt a rape-in-progress, but a rather kinky roleplay between the teacher and the student. Zoe seems immediately worried that she’s going to be in enormous trouble, and her reputation will never be the same even if she avoids legal trouble.
Let’s leave aside Zoe’s concern for her reputation for a moment, as there’s no way she’d avoid notoriety if this ever got out. What are the legalities? Could she be charged with murder or some other offense? And would she have a defense?
II. The Appropriate Charge
If Zoe is to be charged with anything, it isn’t going to be first-degree murder or its equivalent. She had no premeditated intent to kill anyone, which even the most zealous prosecutor would probably recognize immediately. She had no idea the teacher was going to be in the room, much less any intent to do him harm, so a first-degree murder charge seems unlikely. Even second-degree murder seems a stretch. Sure, given the way the killing is portrayed, a prosecutor might well get a jury to bite on the idea that the killing was deliberate. She hit the guy over the back of the head with a heavy, blunt object. A jury could reasonably infer lethal intent there, so a prosecutor wouldn’t be crazy for bringing that charge. This is why many bar fights are charged as second-degree murder.
But given these facts, a voluntary manslaughter charge seems the best fit, because Zoe seems fairly obviously to be operating under the “heat of passion,” having witnessed something that would provoke any reasonable person to violence. The classic example is finding one’s spouse in bed with someone else, but any situation which would cause a reasonable person to suffer severe emotional disturbance of the sort that could lead to homicide can work, and this would certainly seem to.
So does Zoe have any defenses to a voluntary manslaughter charge?
III. Defense of Others
It turns out she probably does, as defense of others can justify the use of lethal force. This is true even though the book implies that it isn’t the case here. Zoe came upon what she believed to be a crime in progress, with the teacher inflicting what the law considers to be serious bodily injury. In such circumstances, one may use any force necessary, including deadly force, in the attempt to prevent the crime. Now the book suggests that because the sex was consensual, this defense wouldn’t apply here, but that’s not the case. Using lethal force in the defense of others is justified when any reasonable person in the same situation would believe lethal force to be necessary to prevent what a reasonable person would perceive to be a crime in progress. Even if there had been no crime in progress, as long as a reasonable person would have thought there was (and the defendant actually believed there was, of course), defense of others will work.
But more than that, though the book doesn’t seem to pick up on it, there was a crime in progress. Consent (or the lack thereof) is not an element of statutory rape, and some still put the age of consent at 18. In those states what happened would have been a felony. So what Zoe stumbled in on wasn’t common law rape, i.e., non-consensual sexual activity, but statutory rape, which is a serious felony. So not only would this have justified using lethal force in the defense of others, but private individuals are generally privileged to use lethal force to prevent felonies-in-progress, particularly felonies which involve harm to persons. Like statutory rape. Thus, regardless of what Zoe thought she saw, and even regardless of her intent in the matter, accidentally killing the teacher was likely justified in the eyes of the law.
Again, that doesn’t say anything about the damage Zoe’s reputation would have suffered—not to mention the other girl’s—if word of this ever got out. Which is why they took the body to the school furnace and disposed of it there, apparently getting away with it. Turns out that’s probably a criminal offense, and fear for one’s reputation is not a defense. So if the prosecutor did get wind of the death, Zoe could probably escape criminal liability for the killing, but she’d definitely be in legal trouble for the cover-up (which might also constitute obstruction of justice, depending on how things went down) and for getting rid of the body. “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”