(Spoilers for Jessica Jones ahead! Trigger warning for discussion of rape.)
Jessica Jones features a private investigator, an attorney, accused criminals, and a killer on the loose. There are so many legal issues it’s hard to know where to begin. The Legal Geeks have written about the feasibility of Kilgrave’s victims raising an insanity defense, but I’m interested in a related but trickier question: what defense could Kilgrave offer if he were hauled into court (and prevented from influencing the case using his powers)? At first glance it might seem like Kilgrave is guilty of numerous instances of murder, rape, theft, and countless lesser offenses. But as Kilgrave claims, he isn’t a murderer himself, he just tells other people to do it. I will consider three possible crimes: Hope Shlottman killing her parents, Kilgrave’s rapes, and Kilgrave taking money from the poker players. The show is set in New York City, so I’ll be using New York law for the analysis.
Before looking at each crime, I should first talk about intent. Not all crimes require intent; there are strict liability crimes such as driving over the speed limit. But most crimes require some form of intent, which can be divided into two classes: specific intent and general intent.
Specific intent means the state must “prove that the defendant has intended to commit some further act, or has intended some additional consequence, or has intended to achieve some additional purpose, beyond the prohibited conduct itself.” 35 N.Y. Jur. 2d Criminal Law: Principles and Offenses § 26. Murder is the classic example of a specific intent crime. The degree of guilt depends on the additional consequence or purpose intended by the defendant. If the defendant intended to kill the victim, that’s intentional homicide. If the defendant did not, then that may only be manslaughter.
General intent means that the state only has to prove that the defendant intended to commit the prohibited conduct. Rape is the typical example of a general intent crime. What matters is that the defendant engaged in sexual intercourse with the victim and the victim did not consent. It does not matter whether the defendant was aware of the lack of consent or intended for the intercourse to be nonconsensual.
II. The Killing of Hope Shlottman’s Parents
In this case, Kilgrave instructed Hope Shlottman to shoot her parents, which she then did, resulting in their deaths. This was done under the influence of result of a virus that Kilgrave produces, which causes others to obey Kilgrave’s commands literally and unflinchingly. Hope herself has a few solid defenses: involuntary action, legal insanity, duress, and involuntary intoxication. But what about Kilgrave? Is he culpable? After all, he just told Hope to kill her parents. He didn’t pull the trigger himself.
Alas for Kilgrave, this argument is more effective as a delusional rationalization than a legal defense. What Kilgrave did is a solid, though unusual, example of solicitation, the basic form of which is this:
A person is guilty of criminal solicitation in the fifth degree when, with intent that another person engage in conduct constituting a crime, he solicits, requests, commands, importunes or otherwise attempts to cause such other person to engage in such conduct.
N.Y. Penal Law § 100.00. The higher degrees of solicitation depend on the defendant’s age and the seriousness of the offense solicited (in this case, very serious). Kilgrave both commanded and “otherwise attempt[ed] to cause” Hope to engage in conduct constituting a crime, which she then did. Once the crime was carried out, Kilgrave became fully liable for the murder. N.Y. Penal Law § 20.00.
But wait! Isn’t the whole point that Hope isn’t guilty? How can Kilgrave be guilty of something that wasn’t a crime for Hope? The New York legislature thought of that, and both the general accessory liability statute § 20 and the solicitation statute § 100 have provisions covering this scenario:
In any prosecution for an offense in which the criminal liability of the defendant is based upon the conduct of another person pursuant to section 20.00, it is no defense that:
1. Such other person is not guilty of the offense in question owing to criminal irresponsibility or other legal incapacity or exemption, or to unawareness of the criminal nature of the conduct in question or of the defendant’s criminal purpose or to other factors precluding the mental state required for the commission of the offense in question; or
2. Such other person has not been prosecuted for or convicted of any offense based upon the conduct in question, or has previously been acquitted thereof, or has legal immunity from prosecution therefor
§ 20.05. Similarly:
It is no defense to a prosecution for criminal solicitation that the person solicited could not be guilty of the crime solicited owing to criminal irresponsibility or other legal incapacity or exemption, or to unawareness of the criminal nature of the conduct solicited or of the defendant’s criminal purpose or to other factors precluding the mental state required for the commission of the crime in question.
So Kilgrave is criminally liable for the intentional murder of Hope Shlottman’s parents, even though he only “asked” Hope to do it and she herself is likely not guilty of murder (and in any case was not convicted of it).
This is an even clearer case than the murder of Hope’s parents. New York criminal law is clear that “A person is deemed incapable of consent when he or she is … mentally incapacitated.” Penal Law § 130.05(3)(c). Mentally incapacitated is defined as when “a person is rendered temporarily incapable of appraising or controlling his conduct owing to the influence of a narcotic or intoxicating substance administered to him without his consent, or to any other act committed upon him without his consent.” § 130.00(6).
In this case, Kilgrave rendered his victims temporarily incapable of controlling their conduct owing to a) the influence of an intoxicating substance (the virus) administered to them without their consent or b) the intentional viral infection, again without their consent.
Notably, the prosecution does not have to prove the exact nature of the intoxicant. People v. Di Noia, 481 N.Y.S.2d 738, 740 (1984). The considerable circumstantial evidence (Hope lying in bed for hours, refusing to leave, shooting her parents for no reason) is sufficient to show that her mind had been incapacitated. Similarly evidence exists for Jessica (e.g. the injury to her ear).
Lack of consent could also be proven by Hope and Jessica’s physical helplessness. § 130.05(3)(d). Physical helplessness is defined as when a person is “unconscious or for any other reason is physically unable to communicate unwillingness to an act.” § 130.00(7). Hope and Jessica were conscious, but they were physically unable to communicate their unwillingness to engage in sexual intercourse (as a result of Kilgrave’s compulsion).
Kilgrave can offer no defense to charges of rape.
Here there is a glimmer of hope for Kilgrave’s defense team (though even this is illusory, as we shall see). Kilgrave took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a group of wealthy men at a poker game by commanding them to go all in and then promptly fold. However, at least under New York law, that may not have been theft (technically larceny).
Unlike murder, the end result was not inherently illegal. Killing a person is generally a crime unless some exception applies. But it is generally legal for one person to give another a large sum of money.
Unlike rape, the larceny statutes and case law are primarily concerned with the perpetrator’s evil intent, not the victim’s lack of consent or true knowledge. Larceny most encompasses taking by fraud, embezzlement, extortion, false promises, and keeping lost property. But Kilgrave didn’t do any of that. He didn’t make any false representations or promises, he did not embezzle the money, he did not extort it on pain of some injury, nor was the money lost.
So here is one crime that Kilgrave may not be guilty of, at least arguably. But there’s a catch: rather than simply tell the men to give him the money, Kilgrave nominally played along with the poker game. This is not a crime in itself: New York appears to allow private, social gambling (although contracts for wagers are unenforceable). But there is a catch:
Every person who shall, by playing at any game … lose at any time or sitting, the sum or value of twenty-five dollars or upwards … may … sue for and recover the money or value of the things so lost and paid or delivered, from the winner thereof.
NY Gen. Obligations Law § 5-421. In other words, the men can sue to recover the money from Kilgrave because, technically, it was lost in a poker game.
Although perhaps unsurprising, it is reassuring to know that the nature of Kilgrave’s powers does not put him outside the reach of the criminal law. And even in cases where it does, he might not be able to keep his ill-gotten gains.