Is wrongful death possible if the deceased was committing a crime?

When a Texas rancher found a man molesting his daughter, he did something that many parents can easily imagine themselves doing: he pulled the man off of his daughter and beat him to death. This case has received wide media coverage, and has captivated viewers across the nation. The incident raises a number of questions about the use of deadly force, and about the right of citizens to take the law into their own hands when confronted with a crime in progress. The case also invites debate over whether a wrongful death suit is possible when someone is killed while in the act of committing a crime.

The incident occurred on June 9 on a Texas ranch near the town of Shiner. Police say a witness saw a ranch hand “forcibly carrying” a little girl into a secluded area of the property. The witness hurried to the girl’s father, who then ran toward the sound of his child’s cries. Behind a barn, he discovered a man who appeared to be sexually assaulting the 5-year-old girl. The father began striking the man with his fists.

The father then called 911 and requested an ambulance for the alleged molester, who was seriously injured in the fight. The ranch is located in an isolated and remote area, and the emergency dispatcher had difficulty pinpointing the location to send help. The father was distraught and stated that he believed that the man he had beaten was about to die.

The case was investigated as a homicide, but the father was never arrested. A grand jury declined to indict him in the death, concluding that Texas law allows the use of deadly force in cases in which such force is used to prevent a sexual assault.

A physical investigation of both the attacker and the child confirmed that a sexual assault had taken place. While many parents can surely empathize with a parent who acted to protect his or her child, the question remains of whether the man was obligated to simply restrain the attacker until police arrived, or if extreme force was necessary. Regardless of the answers, the man’s death brings up some important legal issues that must continually be revisited in cases in which a person committing a crime was killed.

Source: CBC News, “Texas dad won’t face charges in alleged molester’s death,” June 20, 2012