Can you be found guilty of attempted murder if the victim is a mannequin? A Nevada judge will soon have to decide this question in the case of Shane Allen Schindler. Schindler is accused of using a hammer to attack and repeatedly hit a mannequin laying under a blanket on a Las Vegas street. At the same intersection weeks earlier, two homeless men had been bludgeoned to death by a hammer in back-to-back attacks. To catch the killer, police came up with the idea of using a dummy dressed up as a homeless man as bait. According to the arrest report, Schindler thought he was striking a sleeping man because he concealed his face with a pulled-up hood before swinging the hammer and that he had no way of knowing his victim was a decoy. So they claim he thought he was actually trying to kill somebody and that’s good enough. But is it?
Two issues will confound this case: (1) The legal definition of attempted murder in Las Vegas, Nevada is “the performance of an act which tends, but fails, to kill a human being, when such acts are done with . . . the deliberate intention unlawfully to kill.” So it has to be an act which tends to kill a human being. The dummy is not a human being. (2) In Schindler’s statement to police given immediately upon his arrest, he told police he knew it was a mannequin all the time. So at least he’s no dummy.
But while this case is a bit unusual, many other folks have been found guilty of crimes they could not have committed due to impossibility. A quick overview of cases from the Nevada Supreme Court and numerous other Nevada courts shows that the State has come to that conclusion in other so-called impossibility cases, where guilt or innocence hinged on a defendant’s intent – not on whether the crime could have actually been committed: Johns soliciting an undercover officer disguised as a prostitute; people pointing an unloaded gun and shooting at someone when they thought the gun was loaded; or someone selling drugs to an undercover cop. In an article about the “doctrine of impossibility” Wayne R. LaFave, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law noted: “Attempt convictions have been affirmed where the defendant mistakenly believed that the property received was stolen, that the items stolen was a trade secret… or that the cigarette smoked contained marijuana.”
The court will have to decide if the phrase “Tends, but fails, to kill a human being . . ” applies only to the actual victim or merely describes the conduct. If its the former, Schindler must be found not guilty, if its the latter, it will depend on whether there is enough circumstantial evidence to show that he intended to try to kill a person. If the judge or jury believes Schindler knew it was a mannequin all the time, then he can only be charged with criminal mischief/destruction of property. Mr. Schindler’s case, meanwhile, has been put on pause while he undergoes a mental competency evaluation. Police are still investigating the deaths of the two homeless men and haven’t filed any charges in connection with those crimes. Similarities between the three crimes will not help Schindler’s cause.
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