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Stages of a Crime: The D.B. Cooper Hijack of 1971

Facts of the Case
  1. On the 24th of November 1971, a nondescript man by the name of D.B. Cooper[i] bought one-way tickets on a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. By appearance he was in his mid-40's and was wearing a business suit with black tie and white shirt. Upon boarding the flight, he ordered for a couple of refreshments (a bourbon and a 7-up soda) and was seen relaxing in his seat.
  2. A short time after take-off he called one of the flight attendants and handed her a note which made her privy to the fact that this man had a bomb in his suitcase and thereafter, he instructed the lady stewardess to come and sit next to him while he demanded 4 parachutes and $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills.
  3. The flight landed in Seattle after circling for 3.5 hours (passengers being told there was a minor technical issue), where the money and the chutes were handed over to him and he released all the 36 passengers alongside 2 of the 6 crew members. The plane refuelled and took off for the next destination, Mexico via Reno, and Yuma.
  4. Somewhere during this next stage of the flight, he told the crew to go inside the cockpit and thereafter by opening the rear door of the aircraft, he jumped into a thunderstorm, never to be found again.
  5. The flight landed safely, and nobody was harmed
  6. A manhunt was launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and over 800 suspects were interrogated during the next 5 years but none of them fit the exact description that the crew gave.
  7. As far as the evidence is concerned, there was hardly any. The Investigation team found no fingerprints and did not have a chance to examine the handwriting as the suspect had taken back the note from the stewardess. All that was left behind was some cigarette burns, a strand of hair on the seat and a clip on the necktie.
  8. In 1980 a fresh ray of hope was seen in the investigation when an 8-year-old boy found a bunch of rotting 20-dollar bills (amounting to $5800) on the banks of the river Columbia and upon tallying with the serial number of the notes given to Cooper, a perfect match was established.
  9. However, nothing much thereafter could be found and even this piece of material evidence was later sold off at an auction for a massive $37,433.33.
  10. Considering the nature of the hijack, the Federal Aviation Administration installed "Cooper vanes", a device that would prevent the rear door from opening mid-flight on all its Boeing 727 aircrafts.
  11. Having met a dead end in the investigation, the FBI decided to shut the case in the year 2016 stating that it would be reopened only if Cooper's body or the parachutes were ever found. With that the case of D.B. Cooper, one of the most mysterious cases in FBI history came to an end. [ii]

Crime: Actus Reus + Mens Rea
The definition of crime, for long has been a subject of debate with many jurists defining crime by focusing on different aspects. Sir William Blackstone has defined crime "as an act committed or omitted in violation of a public law either forbidding or commanding it." On the other hand, Stephen has defined crime to be "a violation of a right considered in reference to the evil tendency of such violation as regards the community at large[iii]." Popular English Dictionary's like Oxford consider crime to be an action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law.

For an amateur understanding the term crime can be attributed to a wrong committed or an act which was bound to be committed but was omitted by an individual/group, the result of which is punishment according to the law of the land. In India the penal provisions regarding crime are laid down in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc).

Stages of Crime (I+P+A+C)
Having understood the basic tenets of crime we shall now take a detailed look at the 4 stages into which crime can be divided and thereafter try to corelate them with the facts of the present case study.
  1. Intention:
    The first and the most premature stage of the commission of any crime is the stage when the thought process regarding the same begins in the mind and a mindset is established whereby the person wants to commit the crime.

    This stage would be defined as the mental or the intention stage where that framework of mind is reached which tells the person that he wants to commit a crime. The object, purposes or the aim of the act can be referred to as intention. It is usually used in relation to the consequence of an act and not in relation to an act itself, because the action of the crime would follow a consequence and it is this that the person normally strives for.

    One thing that must be noted regarding this stage is that only intention to commit an act, not followed by the actual commission of the act (Actus Reus) will not be considered as a crime and no liability could be attributed to mere intention. So, if a person merely thinks about killing another person but takes no steps in the completion of the same then it would not be considered as a crime.

    However, there are some exceptions like assembly of persons for committing dacoity without any further preparation (punishable under sec 402) and waging war against the government (punishable under 121 to 123 and 124A). These are very serious crimes and here mere intention is punishable.
  2. Preparation:
    After intention comes preparation. This is one step up in the ladder of committing the crime. Basically, refers to the arrangement of the required material for the commission of the act for example the procurement of poison for killing another person. However, just like intention, mere preparation will not constitute to be an offence.

    Even in the above example if the person fully intends to poison another person and purchases poison for the same, still until and unless he actually makes effort to mix the poison with that person's food, it won't attribute criminal liability on him. Buying and keeping in possession of himself the poison, will not be judged to be a crime, but will be said to be in the stage of preparation. The stage of preparation allows the person sufficient time to repent and stop the act.

    Exceptions lie to this as well such as preparation for committing dacoity which is punishable under sec 399 and preparation for waging war against the government which is also punishable under sec 122. Alongside these two, being in possession of counterfeit coins and forged documents will also be punishable and there the excuse of preparation will not be taken.
  3. Attempt:
    After preparation comes attempt. It refers to the direct movement towards the accomplishment of the act with a guilty intention and successful preparation. It can be referred to as the stage just before the successful completion of the act. For example, the mixing of poison in a person's food with the intention to kill him would be regarded as an attempt to murder. Attempt in itself is punishable under the IPC because it is complete regardless of the outcome of the act.

    There are 3 basic essentials of attempt namely, the guilty intention, the commission of some act towards the commission of the actual crime and that the act must fall short of completion. However, there is a very thin line between preparation and attempt and for this the courts have laid down several tests to identify when the preparation ends and when the attempt phase starts. These are the Proximity Test, The Locus Poenitentiae Test, the Impossibility Test, the Social Danger Test and the Equivocal Test.

    The courts in the case of Kopula Venkat Rao vs State of AP [iv] has laid down that since attempt does not cause that big an injury hence the punishment should be half.
    Under the IPC, there are some offences where completed offences and attempt is dealt with in the same section and punishments prescribed accordingly (e.g. Sec 152 i.e. Assaulting or obstructing public servant when suppressing riot etc) and some where there are separate sections for attempt (e.g. Murder punishable under sec 302 and attempt to murder under sec 307)
  4. Commission:
    The last stage of the crime where the person has successfully completed all the three previous stages and has put action to his Mens rea in the form of successful addition of Actus Reus. Continuing with the previous example, when the person adds poison to the food and the victim consumes and dies, it will be said to be an act of murder and the person will be prosecuted according to the relevant provisions of Sec 302.

Now we shall co relate the facts of the D.B Cooper case with the 4 stages of crime.
  1. Intention:
    From the 229 sec video it is unclear as to where exactly did that thought in his mind arise of hijacking the plane and committing the offence, but it can safely be said that when the person had this thought in his mind that he would hijack the plane along with passengers and ask for money, that is the point where the clear presence of intention to commit the offence arose. Hence when that guilty idea of doing this offence arose in his mind, that is the time when it can be said that he had intention.

    As per provisions of the IPC, mere intention is not punishable and doesn't attach liability. Hence if the person had stopped at this stage then when he only had the thought in his mind (mens rea), he would not have been liable.
  2. Preparation:
    Corelating the incident with the definition of preparation, we find that when the person would have framed a plan, procured the required documents, prepared and procured the bomb and did other such pre requisites of the offence then all these were a part of the preparation phase of the offence which are an essential need for the successful completion (for example without the bomb he would not have been able to coerce the flight crew to do what he said). So, procuring and arranging these would be referred to as preparation.

    As per the criminal law, mere preparation would not be considered as an offence and would not attract liability and hence if he had stopped at this stage, he would not have been liable. However, going into the minute details, if the person did enter the airport with a fake id card (the reason why his real name could not be tracked), then that would be punishable because having with yourself, forged documents is punishable under IPC (Sec 474) and there the defence of mere preparation would not arise.
  3. Attempt:
    Direct movement towards the accomplishment of the act would be referred to as attempt. Hence, when the accused set off for the airport with the bomb in his bag and the full plan registered in his head, then we can say that the attempt phase started because that is the primary act in the chronology of acts that the person has to do to reach completion of the crime. Hence, him reaching the airport, going through security, boarding the flight, till before he showed the bomb to the stewardess, would all be considered as an attempt.

    Assuming at this point, because of some reason or the other, the person failed to thereafter take control of the aircraft, he would have said to have committed an attempt and not the act itself, but what happens thereafter, completes the offence. However, even if he had stopped at the attempt, it would still be an offence and would attract liability because according to criminal law attempt is punishable unlike preparation and intention.
  4. Commission:
    As far as hijacking the aircraft is concerned according to Sec 3(1) of the Anti-Hijacking Act of 2016, hijack would have been said to be completed as soon as the person would have showed the bomb to the stewardess and got control of the aircraft through coercion. That would be the completion of the hijack. However, if we are to look at the asking of money (as in ransom) as a separate offence, that will have said to be completed when the money was duly given to him at Seattle airport in exchange of the passengers and 2 crew members. If he would have been caught, he would have been prosecuted for the successful commission of this grave offence.

End Notes:
  1. A name borne out of media reporting, his real name is not known till date
  2. With inputs from (02-08-20 at 9:38 am)
  3. Referred from,regards%20the%20community%20at%20large. (02-08-20 at 10:06 am)
  4. (2004) 3 SCC 602
Written By: Mr. Saikat Mukherjee, A 3rd year BA LLB student at Symbiosis Law School, Nagpur.
Email: [email protected]

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