Bush v Commonwealth

US Criminal Law

Bush v Commonwealth
Image: ‘Kentucky Derby 2017’ by Jim Cantrell

Murder and involuntary manslaughter, while both implicated as a cause of death, stem from quite different modus operandi, and so on this occasion, the misdirection of a jury almost led to the hanging of an innocent man.

Around 1880, the appellant was indicted for murder, after an accidental gunshot injured a third party during a confrontation between two men. While pleaded that the shot was fired out of self-defence, the trial judge directed the jury to determine his guilt as below:

“If the jury believe from the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant, John Bush, in Fayette county, and before the finding of the indictment, wilfully shot Annie Vanmeter with a pistol, and that she died from the effects of the wound then inflicted upon her, whether said wound was the sole cause or was a contributory agency in producing death, when such shooting was not necessary, and not reasonably believed by the defendant to be necessary for his own protection from immediate death or great bodily harm then threatening him, the jury should find the defendant guilty: guilty of murder, if the killing were also done with malice aforethought, or guilty of manslaughter if the killing were done in sudden heat and passion, and without malice.

Upon this, the jury returned a guilty verdict, despite the fact that the victim died, not from the wound, but from the transmission of scarlet fever from the physician treating her injury, while it was further implied that any deliberate and cruel act must stem from malice, regardless of contributory factors.

Taken to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the Court took issue with almost all of the judicial approaches, and reminded that s.262 of the Criminal Code expressly states that:

“Upon an indictment for an offense consisting of different degrees, the defendant may be found guilty of any degree not higher than that charged in the indictment, and may be found guilty of any offense included in that charge in the indictment.”

This translated that reliance upon the direction of the judge without any explanation as to how the victim died, would by default, lead to a wrongful execution, whereas observation of the events preceding her demise showed clearly that a non-fatal injury would have been equally chargeable as wilful and malicious shooting, stabbing or poisoning under s.2 art.6 ch.29 of the General Statutes of Kentucky 1873, or shooting and wounding in sudden affray, or in sudden heat without previous malice as per s.1 art.17 ch.29 of the same Act.

Thus it was for these quite distinct polarities of reasoning, that the Court reversed the judgment with instruction to retrial upon the very principles applied.

Key Citations

“Under an indictment for murder or manslaughter, when there is evidence from which the jury might find the existence of facts constituting involuntary manslaughter, it becomes the duty of the court to instruct the jury as to the law of this offense.”

“[T]he existence of malice must be left to the determination of the jury as any other fact, and that it is error, under any circumstances, to tell the jury that the law implies malice from any fact or facts.”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

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