Before 1997 if someone was injured by a defendant during the commission of a crime and died more than three years and a day after the crime, he could not be convicted of murder. Recently, a case came before the Court of Appeal that tested this assumption.
Two defendants, Robert Duston Strong and David Michael Knick were charged with murder because they shot a sheriff’s deputy more than 30 years before and he recently died of complications from his injuries. Meanwhile, the defendants had served time in prison for their crimes and completed their sentences for the crimes they were charged with at the time.
The legal question became: could the defendants now be charged with murder because the sheriff’s deputy finally succumbed to his injuries many years after the original crime?
The Court of Appeal issued a ruling that the law that was in effect in 1997 controls the issue. The defendants could not , in 2011, be charged and convicted of this greater crime, murder, even though the cause of death was undeniably the injuries caused by these defendants.
There isn’t a statute of limitations on murder so why not now charge them with murder? The answer is found in the fact that back in 1997, the law provided that in order to have a murder, the death had to occur within the time period of three years and one day. If the death did not occur within that time then it simply isn’t murder per the statute. To hold otherwise violates the Ex Post Facto provisions of the United States Constitution. Essentially, the law says you can’t increase the punishment for a crime after it is committed and then punish the defendant with the greater punishment no matter how awful the original crime was.
The rule of law is basically that whatever the law is at the time the crime is committed, that is what controls whether or not the defendant can be charged and/or punished for the acts committed at that time.