The dead cucumber thief: Whose fault is it?

Three gypsy men had a jolly good time in the local tavern in Kesznyéten, a medium-sized village in Borsod county. After consuming a fair amount of alcohol they decided to steal cucumbers from a villager’s vegetable garden. The gardener, a sixty-eight-year-old man, had had a lot of trouble with intruders who time and again stole his produce. He apparently reported the incidents to the police, to no avail. So he decided to take things into his own hands. He fenced his property with aluminum wire connected to the electrical current. At night at 10 o’clock he electrified his fence and the next morning at six, he shut it off. Apparently a lot of people in the village knew about his home-made contraption, including the three who decided to try to steal some cucumbers anyway. I guess they figured that they just had to be careful and all would be well. It didn’t turn out that way. The oldest (age 48) died on the spot, the second one (age 30) was seriously injured, and only the youngest managed to escape with minor injuries–some burns on his feet. He was the one who ran for help.

These three men were related, part of an extended family of about 50 to 60 people who vowed revenge. Luckily the police arrived with a large force and prevented any bloodshed. The old villager is charged with attempted murder (“több ember ellen elkövetett emberölés” is the Hungarian legal term; it implies that homicide was attempted against several people) while the two survivors are charged with larceny. The older villager apparently didn’t have the foggiest idea that his idea of protecting his property was not legal in Hungary. He believed that if the police didn’t defend him he had to defend himself. (I assume that in Hungary as in the United States ignorance of the law is no excuse. And that a person can’t take the law into his own hands.) According to György Magyar, one of those “star lawyers” who take high-profile cases, the Hungarian criminal code considers such a dangerous way of defending personal property disproportionate to the potential theft of that property. (Your life for my cucumbers.)

This case will receive a lot of media attention. The mayor of Monok, a town about 30 km from Kesznyéten, immediately came to the assistance of the elderly man. The mayor has been in the news lately because he was the one who decided not to give financial assistance to those in his town who refuse to work a certain number of days for their monthly allotment. Although it seems that demanding work for assistance is unconstitutional, he is not impressed with the ombudsman’s opinion. If necessary he is ready to go to the Constitutional Court, and he is also planning to hold a referendum on the question. In any case, he managed to get a pro bono lawyer for our man in Kesznyéten. As the lawyer said in an interview, he took the case because he agrees with the principle that an individual should be able to defend his property. In his opinion, the Hungarian criminal code’s provisions in this respect are deficient.

In the United States electric fences are common in rural areas, but they are erected not so much to keep intruders out as to keep animals in. Moreover, they aren’t designed to be lethal. As far as I know, the only lethal electrified fences in the U.S. are in high-security prisons.

I of course have no idea what will happen. If the gardener knew that his fence was lethal, I would think it well nigh impossible to mount a convincing defense. But if the villager is convicted the outcry will be unimaginable. In fact, I think that there might be real trouble between Gypsies and non-Gypsies. Luckily the Hungarian judicial system is so slow that it might take a whole decade before the case comes to trial. By that time the defendant could be dead.

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In American they do not have electric fences, but as soon as intruder gets on the property a lot of farmers would come out shooting.


It is incorrect to generalize how the law applies in America towards defending ones property. There is a spectrum with Texas at one extreme, where one can defend their property with lethal force. (in a somewhat similar case to this Hungarian one, a Texan shot dead two illegal immigrants who were burglarizing his neighbors
What Ms. Balogh states is correct at the other end of the spectrum in certain states. (mostly Northeastern)
Like the Texas case, most juries across the US are not prone to convict persons defending their home with undue force, especially if it a home invasion. In many areas across rural America, there is an epidemic of methamphetamine and pharmaceutical medicine abuse that has lead to a lot of crime.

Odin's lost eye
Whilst this is a ‘shocking’ affair, you may use reasonable force to defend yourself, your family, your property etc, the problem is what is reasonable force. Where I came from some young thugs tried to rob an old man of his pension. They came badly unstuck when the old man committed mayhem on these three young men. The pensioner was arrested and charged with grievous bodily harm (GBH), causing actual bodily harm (ABH), and several more minor violence related charges. He went for trial by judge and jury. The prosecution made great stress that the young men were only going to steal his pension and that they had all been hospitalised by the beatings they got. They also added that this was unreasonable force. The jury asked the judge to stop the case when they found out that the old man was 81 years old at the time of the offence and he had hit each one very hard to stop the men from hitting him. He added that this was what he had been taught to do in the Royal Marines. Against all that the prosecution could argue the judge was forced to stop the trial and order the… Read more »
Odin's lost eye

@Professor Balogh you say
*** “So, if someone breaks into your house to steal your television set and you shoot him while it turns out that the intruder has no gun on him, then you are in big trouble*** “.
This is not quite true you only to beleive that you are in fear of bodily harm then you can shoot, but the victim has to be facing you when you do this. You cannot take pot shots at him if he is running away