Poor Choice of Words May Result in Death

State v. Terrazas, a 1999 case out of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, turned on the meaning of a statement made by a state investigator to a defendant that led to the defendant confessing. The issue reminded dissenting Judge Price of a legal brainteaser from the movie Let Him Have It based on the controversial true story of a young man who was hanged for murder in 1953. Here’s Judge Price’s footnote on the matter (paragraph breaks inserted):

1. This issue calls to mind the film “Let Him Have it” which was based on the famous Derek Bentley Confession case in post-WWII England.

Two boys who were trying to break into a building were cornered on a rooftop by a policeman. One of the boys had a gun. The policeman calmly reached out his hand and asked the boy to hand over the gun.

The other boy said, “Let him have it.” The boy with the gun pulled the trigger and killed the officer.

What did the phrase, “Let him have it,” really mean? There are two possibilities: “Hand over the gun!” Or “Shoot him!” A British jury decided upon the second possibility and the boy, a retarded young man named Derek Bentley was convicted of murder and hanged.”

The legal tip from this case is that it’s always smarter to always use nouns and articles rather than pronouns when responding to police commands.

State v. Terrazus, 4 S.W.3d 720, 729 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999) (Price, J., dissenting). Thanks to Senior Judge James Barlow.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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