Beyond the Law


NEWMAN LEVY is a New Yew York lawyer with a special fondness for quirks in the legal process. His avocation is light verse and prose.

WRITERS of crime stories sometimes express an interest in evolving the Perfect Crime—the crime that either is so ingeniously contrived that it defies solution, or else is committed in such a way that it guarantees the criminal complete immunity from punishment. I rather think that the

writers of crime fiction are not interested in Perfect Crimes so much as Nearly Perfect Crimes. In real life a crime can remain unsolved, and a surprisingly large number of them do, but a book must have an end. And current morality being what it is, vice has to be punished. There should be enough imperfection in the Nearly Perfect Crime to land the malefactor on ihe gallows, or at least induce him to commit suicide.

When we speak of fictional crime we mean, of course, murder, which Dorothy Sayers, I believe, said was the only offense worthy of consideration in detective literature. Most storybook murders have seemed to me to be so cluttered up with gadgets and ingenuity as to shriek out for detection and arrest. Any murderer, for instance, who puls on another person’s shoes backwards so that the telltale footsteps will seem to be going instead of coming should retain me. I’ll guarantee to get him off on the ground of insanity.

There was one case I liked in which the victim was stabbed with an icicle; by the time the police arrived the weapon had melted. This struck me as a reasonably foolproof method, but I have since examined a number of icicles with mild homicidal curiosity. Try, sometime, stabbing a steak with an icicle and see if you can penetrate it before your weapon breaks.

Melville Davison Post wrote a story called The Corpus Delicti in which the victim’s body was placed in a bathtub and dissolved in lye. The police broke in just as the last vestiges of the deceased were pouring down the drain. The murderer was acquitted because no trace of the body, the corpus delicti, was left, but I am sure that he owed his escape to sloppy police work. The author ignored the probability of such indissoluble matter as teeth and dental fillings surviving the lye bath. In real life the body would have been snugly incased in cement and dropped into the river.

These crimes are all too clever. Good murders should be simple and direct. I was associate counsel in a case, many years ago, in which a young man was charged with murdering a young woman by pushing her out of the window of a high building. A dozen people saw them struggling on a window ledge. Then she fell out and crashed to her death. The defense was that she was trying to commit suicide and the defendant was trying to hold her back. There was no way of proving that his story was untrue, and the judge directed the jury to bring in a verdict of Not Guilty.

Now there, if we accept the prosecution’s theory that the girl was pushed, was a perfect crime, a murder committed in broad daylight in the presence of a dozen credible witnesses. Why bother with reversed shoes, obscure South American poisons, or icicles? Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, had the right idea. He simply walked in, slugged the old woman over the head, and walked out again.

All this is a prelude to a case I came across that seems to contain the perfeet formula; it is simple, direct, and conviction-proof. I am presenting it here solely for the use of writers of crime stories. Just as they labeled certain alcoholic preparations years ago with the statement that they were not to be used as beverages, I wish to emphasize that this plot is to be used for fictional purposes only. Lawyers who are interested are referred to United States v. Cordova, 89 F Supp. 298.

The story would begin something like this: —

‘The mighty DC-6 of the TransAtlantic Airlines was speeding across the ocean toward New York. From the loud-speaker came the announcement, ‘We are 400 miles out of Shannon, flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet.’

“This, thought Mr. Keith Mason, seems to be the appropriate time. He turned, with a look of repugnance, to his homely wife who was snoring peacefully in the seat beside him. How did he ever let himself get stuck with such an unattractive female? Well, it would be over in a few moments.

“He drew a revolver from his pocket, pressed it against his wife’s temple, and, as the other passengers of the plane looked at him with mild curiosity, pulled the trigger. There was a deafening explosion; she toppled forward in her scat. . . .”

The crime in the Cordova case also was committed in an airplane high above the ocean in the presence of about sixty witnesses. In that case all that the defendant did was to assault the stewardess and bite the pilot while under the stimulating influence of Porto Rican rum, but the rules of law expounded in the case undoubtedly apply to the more serious crime of murder. Mr. Cordova performed the extraordinary feat of committing a flagrant crime for which there was no law to punish him.

Title 18 U.S.C.A. deals with crimes over which the Federal Courts have jurisdiction. Section 7, in part, is as follows: —


The term “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,” as used in this title, includes:

(1) The high seas, any other waters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular State, and any vessel belonging in whole or in part to the United States or any citizen thereof, or to any corporation created by or under the laws of the United States, or of any State, Territory, District, or possession thereof, when such vessel is within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular State.

(2) Any vessel registered, licensed, or enrolled under the laws of the United States, and being on a voyage upon the waters of any of the Great Lakes, or any of the waters connecting them, or upon the Saint Lawrence River where the same constitutes the International Boundary Line.

The crimes and offenses include assault and murder. There were two questions in the Cordova, case, as Federal Judge Kennedy pointed out. Was the crime committed upon the high seas? And does the case come within the admiralty jurisdiction of the United States courts?

“The second question gives less difficulty than the other and should be dealt with first,”said Judge Kennedy. “The answer that ought to bo made turns on the question whether an airplane is a vessel within the meaning of the statute, and obviously the answer should be in the negative.”

It may not appear quite as obvious to a layman why an airplane is not a vessel, but the Court fortified its opinion with a quotation from Cardozo, than which there is no stronger fortification, that planes “are neither of the land or sea, and not being of the sea or restricted in their activities to navigable waters they are not maritime.”

Having thus settled that an airplane is not a vessel, the Court turned to the more difficult problem, whether a statute that relates to crimes upon the high seas can be applied to crimes committed over the high seas. This was a novel question, which is not surprising considering how recent transoceanic flying is. Since there were no contemporary precedents, the Court had to fa11 back upon an opinion interpreting a law of 1790, written in 1820 by Chief Justice Marshall. Backed by Marshall it came to the inescapable conclusion that upon does not mean over.

“The acts for which Cordova stands charged,” said Judge Kennedy, “were vicious in the extreme. He jeopardized the lives of others on the plane, including a considerable number of infants. But it seems to me clear that those acts have not been denounced by a statute which forbids them when committed on board an American ‘vessel,’or when committed on the ‘high seas.’”

So, since Cordova had not committed his crime on a vessel, he had not violated a law relating to vessels; and since he had committed his acts over the high seas, he had not done anything on the high seas. The Court thereupon found that although Cordova was guilty he had committed no crime over which the Federal Courts had jurisdiction. Congress could plug up the gap in the law if it wanted to, but thus far it has not done so. So Mr. Cordova was discharged. We can reasonably assume that Mr. Mason’s fate would he the same.