Mayes v. People (1883)

US Criminal Law

Mayes
‘Still Life Beer’ by Neil Carroll

Death resulting from a reckless act is on most occasions deemed manslaughter, however with overwhelming evidence of wilful intent, the court cannot simply accept anything less than a charge of murder, as was explained in this case between the convicting State and the subjective argument of a clearly mentally distressed man.

The nature of this 1883 matter rests upon the testimony of both a grandmother and the defendant in error’s young daughter, who at the time of the offence witnessed their father return home from a nearby saloon in a drunken state, while obviously angry for reasons left unknown to the court.

Having entered the family home around 9pm, the defendant in error proceeded to request arsenic while explaining that either himself or the deceased needed to die, upon which the deceased made a number of strategic attempts to placate his temper and settle his mind.

After his refusing to eat food or engage with those around him, the defendant in error later sat alone and continued to make demands upon his wife and daughter, until for no sound reason he threw a tin of food at his daughter, who ran for safety as the deceased quickly followed with a gas lamp in hand, at which point the defendant in error forcefully threw a heavy beer glass at his wife, and upon which the glass struck the lamp and caused the ignited oil to spill all over her clothing.

Seemingly unwilling to assist the deceased, the defendant in error watched as she was engulfed in flames and suffered five major burns to her head, neck, legs and body, all of which led to her death some five days later, and so indicted in the Circuit Court of Jersey County the jury convicted the defendant in error of murder, whereupon he appealed the decision under writ of error in the Illinois Supreme Court.

Here the court first referred to § 140 of the Illinois Revised Statutes, which read that:

“Malice shall be implied when no considerable provocation appears, or when all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.” 

And then to Francis Wharton’s ‘A Treatise on the Law of Homicide in the United States’, in which p. 45 read that:  

“When an action, unlawful in itself, is done with deliberation, and with intention of mischief or great bodily harm to particulars, or of mischief indiscriminately, fall where it may, and death ensue, against or beside the original intention of the party, it will be murder.”

While the defendant in error continued to explain that he was simply attempting to dispose of the glass through an open rear door, a statement which was reasoned away by the two witnesses, who confirmed that the door was in fact closed at all times that evening. 

Thus with no reason to accept the alcohol-hazed recollection of a man claiming to have felt no ill-will toward the deceased, the court instead noted that had there been no aggression behind the act then the verdict would have likely been in doubt, however it was patently clear that harm was intended when assessing the impact of the glass upon the lamp, and so with little hesitation the court upheld the previous judgment while reminding those present that:

“Malice is an indispensable element to the crime of murder.” 

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Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Legal Consultant, Author and Foodie...

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