The Cities of Refuge are where one goes if he killed another by accident and he is protected there from the wrath of an avenger until the death of the Kohen Gadol. The pasuk is clear that there was no premeditated murder, and it only applies to one who “strikes his fellow unintentionally, whom he did not hate in times past.”
The Gemara (Maseches Makos) states as follows: “Where did the Torah say, “From the wicked comes forth wickedness”? From (the pasuk) “But Hashem brought it about through his hand.” To what is this referring? To two people, one who killed unintentionally and one who killed intentionally, but there were no witnesses to testify to the matter. This one was not executed (intentional), and that one was not exiled (unintentional). So, the Holy One, blessed be He, brings them both to one inn. The one who killed intentionally sits under a ladder, and the one who killed unintentionally is ascending the ladder, and he falls on the one who had killed intentionally and kills him. Witnesses testify about him and sentence him to exile. The result is that the one who killed unintentionally is exiled, and the one who killed intentionally was killed.”
In 1987, then president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Dr. Don Harper Mills, went on stage at a banquet for members of his organization in San Diego and told a story about a case in which a medical examiner had investigated a suspicious death and concluded that a man was guilty of his own murder. Later, in an interview, he admitted that he had fabricated the story for entertainment and to illustrate to his colleagues how, if you alter a few small facts, you can alter the legal consequences. “Different legal consequences can follow each twist in a homicide inquiry.”
This is the story that he told that night: On March 23 of that year, the medical examiner viewed the deceased body of Ronald Opus, and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound to the head. Mr. Opus had jumped from the top of a ten-story building, intending to commit suicide. He left a note to that effect, indicating his despondency. As he fell past the ninth floor, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast passing through a window, which killed him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the deceased was aware that a safety net had been installed just below the eighth-floor level to protect some building workers, and that Ronald Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide the way he had planned.
The room on the ninth floor, where the shotgun blast emanated, was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. They were arguing vigorously and he was threatening her with a shotgun! The man was so upset that when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife, and the bullet went through the window, striking Mr. Opus. Legally, when one intends to kill Subject A but kills Subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of Subject B. But wait – there’s more!
When confronted with the murder charge, the old man and his wife were adamant, and both said that they thought the shotgun was not loaded. The old man could not believe he might be charged with murder since he said it was a long-standing habit of his to wave his unloaded shotgun at others. He never had any intention to shoot his wife. Therefore, the killing of Mr. Opus appeared to be an accident – that is, assuming the gun had been accidentally loaded.
The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old couple’s son loading the shotgun about six weeks prior to the fatal accident. It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son’s financial support and the son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot his mother. Since the loader of the gun was aware of this, he was guilty of the murder even though he didn’t actually pull the trigger. The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.
Now comes the exquisite twist. Further investigation revealed that the son was, in fact, Ronald Opus! He had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to engineer his mother’s demise. This led him to jump off the ten-story building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast passing through the ninth-story window. The son, Ronald Opus, had actually murdered himself! So, the medical examiner closed the case as a suicide. Better than an Agatha Christie novel!