Death Three Years After Assault Sparks Confusion Over Charges

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Christopher Robinson was shot in August 1996.

Melvin T. Smith was arrested and later convicted of assaulting and trying to kill Robinson.

The bullets had shredded Robinson’s digestive system, so badly damaging his organs that he never ate another meal. The intravenous fluids that initially kept Robinson alive ultimately poisoned his liver. And 31/2 years after he was shot, the 37-year-old Robinson died on Jan. 18, 2000, the Boston Globe reports.

Was it murder? Prosecutors think so and have brought new charges against Smith. But Smith’s lawyers are asking a judge to throw them out, arguing that prosecutors had manipulated the system by using the assault trial as a dry run. A murder trial, based on the same evidence, would be nearly identical to the first trial, the lawyers contend.

Advances in medicine have led to legal tangles in murder cases in which victims may linger for years after they are assaulted. Earlier this year, Arkansas prosecutors considered filing murder charges against a man who allegedly beat his victim into a coma that lasted 12 years. The 31-year-old man died in a nursing home on New Year’s Eve.

Following the precedent of hundreds of years of English common law, prosecutors in Massachusetts and most other states could bring murder charges only if the victim died within a year and a day after the attack. But in 1980, the Supreme Judicial Court said the rule was outdated.

“When medical science couldn’t trace out cause and effect as easily and when opportunistic infections were much more common, it was harder to say what caused the death,” said David Rossman, a professor at Boston University School of Law.


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