Pre-Horde Zombies And The Definition of “Death”

I recently found a zombie story with a legal issue in it. The story was called . . . Dead Men Working In the Cane Fields, by W. B. Seabrook. This is the story of a man who has been confronted with evidence of zombies, but whose Anglo-Saxon skepticism has kept him from accepting what he saw with his own eyes. At the end of the story the narrator had a conversation with a man of science – a European who had lived in Haiti for years – who made a point about semantics and law as a way of demonstrating that the Haitian villagers who lived around him may not be as wrong as the narrator thought. Dr. Antoine Villiers, the man of science, showed the narrator a book of Haitian law, specifically Article 249, which read:

Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.

In the story people were being drugged to a death-like state, buried, then removed, partly revived to a near-death state, and enslaved for work in the fields. They shambled around, were filthy and had dead eyes, just as zombies do. Under the eyes of the law they were murder victims, so what was going on was that people were reviving the “dead,” and removing them from their graves, even if they were not technically deceased. This is an interesting result legally, and dovetails nicely with a culture that a lot of our early zombie lore comes from. There are even articles out there on the web that claim that this penal code section is real, though they also admit that it was probably not a big deal, and may have been inserted into the code just to pacify a vocal, rural minority. Elsewhere in the world it is a complete defense to the crime of murder to claim that the victim did not die. None of our rules of murder even approach a rule like this. Even the Felony Murder Rule requires that a death take place, and most statutes allow for a charge of Homicide where the intent may not have been to kill; only to create great bodily harm or injury. But none of those statutes allow for a charge of murder or even manslaughter where a death did not actually occur. In our culture this would be assault with a reckless disregard for the life of another, or slavery. This statute punishes an accused for creating the impression of death. In one way it misses he point of most murder statutes, including French and Haitian statutes already on the books. But in another, it applies “poetic justice” to right a wrong.

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