RD45 - Year-and-a-Day-Rule

Executive Summary:
The year-and-a-day-rule is a common law rule that bars a prosecution for murder in cases in which the victim dies more than a year and a day after the infliction of the wound causing the death. The alleged rationale behind the rule is that when the infliction of the injury and the death are more than a year and a day apart, the cause of death is considered too remote from the injuries sustained during the attack. Although the rule may have been necessary in the past to alleviate causation problems, most, if not all, of its purposes and justifications have been eliminated by advances in medical science. These advances enable persons inflicted with mortal injuries to survive for longer periods and allow professionals to pinpoint the cause of death with greater certainty. Although the rule may have served a legitimate purpose in the past, it is now possible that the year and a day rule could bar a prosecution for murder in a case in which causation was determinable but advances in medicine prolonged the victim’s life beyond a year and a day.

Allegations that the rule has outlived its purpose prompted Virginia to join the growing number of states that have reviewed the applicability and continued need for the year-and-a-day-rule. The Virginia State Crime Commission was requested by letter to conduct a study of the year-and-a-day-rule, including its current and future applicability in Virginia. In accordance with this request, Crime Commission staff conducted a study of the year-and-a-day-rule. This study included a review of the rule’s historical origins, original justifications and purposes, and need in today’s society.

Also included in this study is a synopsis of the rule’s status among the various states that have recently had the opportunity to address it. The manner in which the legislatures and courts of different states have chosen to abolish or replace the rule is instructive and warrants attention. For example, while the legislatures of some states have opted to abolish the rule outright, thereby removing any requirement that the victim die within a specified amount of time, others have merely replaced the year-and-a-day-rule with a new, extended time period. Moreover, while some courts have judicially abolished the rule prospectively, others have opted to do so retroactively, applying the abolition to the case at hand. As to the latter, the United States Supreme Court recently held that a state court’s retroactive abolition of the year-and-a-day-rule does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause.

Upon conclusion of the study, Crime Commission staff concluded that the year-and-a-day-rule, in existence as part of the common law of Virginia, has outlived its purpose and should be abolished. Specific findings include:

• The original justifications for the year-and-a-day-rule no longer exist, resulting in the continued existence of an ancient common law rule that is without purpose.

• The longevity of the rule can be attributed to the fact that its infrequent use has deprived courts of the opportunity to comment on it.

• When given the opportunity, however, most courts have seized the chance to judicially abolish the rule.

• Of the 32 states that have abolished the rule, at least 17 have acted to abolish, or have been held to have abolished, the rule legislatively.

• In addition to having outlived its purpose, the year-and-a-day-rule might actually begin to prevent justice in cases where causation is certain. Advances in medical science can prolong the life of a mortally wounded victim beyond a year and a day. As a result, these advances in medical science will actually aid would-be murderers in avoiding murder convictions.

• Abolition of the year-and-a-day-rule will not relieve the government of its burden of proving causation beyond a reasonable doubt.

• The United States Supreme Court recently held that a state court may retroactively abolish the year-and-a-day-rule without violating the Ex Post Facto Clause.