Hopkins v. Commonwealth

US Criminal Law

Hopkins v. Commonwealth
‘La Miseria’ by Cristóbal Rojas

Murderous acts, or at the very least, assaults designed to cause significant harm, are nonetheless applicable to the death of a person, who at the time of the offence, was suffering from grave illness or an otherwise delicate constitution, as was found in this case.

Upon indictment before a Knox County grand jury in 1904, the appellant was charged with murder and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, whereupon he argued the the judgment was unlawful in that the jury had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his actions were directly attributable to the victim’s death  at a time following the act.

By way of background, the appellant had chosen to leave his position as a labourer, whereupon his employer had pursued him out of anger, before verbally abusing the appellant in public before the two men settled their differences and went their separate ways.

Having met again in a convenience store, the now deceased employer again used profane and abusive language toward the appellant, whereupon the appellant stole a hand gun from the store clerk’s keeping and went after the deceased, later to shoot and wound him  on public highway.

Two months after the shooting the employer died not from the shooting itself, but as a result of an existing diagnosis of consumption (tuberculosis), a common disease at the time, however the jury found that the appellant deliberately and purposefully assassinated the employer, and that his actions exacerbated the illness and thereby accelerated his otherwise eventual death.

At the point of appeal, the Kentucky Court of Appeals first referred to p.129 of the Hand-Book of Criminal Law, in which W.M. L. Clark Jr. wrote: 

“The fact that the person killed was diseased and in ill health, or wounded by another, and was likely or sure to die when the blow was given, or that after the blow was given he neglected or refused to take proper care of himself, or submit to an operation by which he could have been cured, is no defense.”

Before further noting that on p.428 of A History of the Pleas of the Crown (Vol. I), Sir Matthew Hale stated that:

“If a man be sick of some such disease which possibly, by course of nature, would end his life in half a year, and another gives him a wound or hurt which hastens his end by irritating and provoking the disease to operate more violently or speedily, this hastening of his death sooner than it would have been is homicide or murder….”

And so despite claims of remoteness as to the actual cause of death, the court dismissed the appeal and upheld the previous judgment in full.

Commonwealth v. Couch

U.S. Criminal Law

Commonwealth v. Couch

While there is a fine line between the deliberation of murder and recklessness of manslaughter, on this occasion the defendant found himself charged with the death of a complete stranger, roughly a year after his unlawful act had transpired.

In a moment of wanton stupidity, the now appellant took it upon himself to fire his pistols towards a public highway in the State of Kentucky, after which a pregnant woman went into premature labour, due to the shock of hearing the gunfire. 

Following an abortive birth and prolonged illness resulting from the failed delivery, the woman sadly died, whereupon the appellant was indicted for her murder by the State. Having been heard in the Perry County Circuit Court, the trial judge upheld the complaint against the charge, on grounds that the two incidents were separate and thus insufficient to sustain a conviction for murder, rather at best the appellant was guilty of the unlawful discharge of his weapons in a public place.

Taken to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the court reviewed the facts, while reminding the parties that under the terms of his indictment, the court was empowered to convict anywhere between murder, involuntary manslaughter and manslaughter, while also referring to Sparks v. Commonwealth, in which the same court had held that:

“If a man, contrary to law and good order and public security, fires off a pistol in the streets of a town, and death be thereby produced, he must answer criminally for it, whether it be malum in se or merely malum prohibitum; and especially so when he knows, as in this instance, he is violating law.”

However in the later Hendrickson v. Commonwealth, the court had contrastingly noted that:

“Forcing a person to do an act which causes his death renders the death the guilty deed of him who compelled the deceased to do the act. And it is not material whether the force were applied to the body or to the mind; but, if it were the latter, it must be shown that there was the apprehension of immediate violence, and well grounded from the circumstances by which the deceased was surrounded; and it need not appear that there was no other way of escape; but it must appear that the step was taken to avoid the threatened danger, and was such as a reasonable man might take.”

And so in this instance the appeal court held that while the sound of gunfire had unquestionably caused the deceased to commence premature labour, any illness arising from complications associated with the birth could not be construed as a continuance of the shock, therefore the appellant was lawfully entitled to complain against the indictment, thus accordingly the court upheld the trial court judgment in full, while noting that had the woman died during labour, the outlook would have proved starkly different.

Coleman v. State

US Criminal Law

Coleman v. State
‘Criminal Type’ by Jeremy Norton

When an alleged robbery resulted in threatening behaviour, the defendant argued that absence of evidence to support the initial act reduced the charge to one of theft under Indiana State law.

Having stolen five rolls of camera film from a Muncie supermarket, the defendant was seen taking the items by a single witness, who after the defendant had left the store, indirectly notified the store manager, who then confronted the defendant outside on the pavement.

In response to his challenge, the defendant brandished a knife and threatened the manager, after which the manager stood down and retreated back inside the shop, only for the State police to arrest the defendant when he somewhat naively returned to the scene of the crime.

Convicted of robbery before a Delaware Circuit Court jury, the Court of Appeals of Indiana Second District reversed the judgment on grounds that § 35-42-5-1 of the Indiana Code defines robbery as present when:

“A person who knowingly or intentionally takes property from another person or from the presence of another person:

(1) By using or threatening the use of force on any person; or

(2) By putting any person in fear….”

And that in Eckelberry v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court had previously held that:

“The force necessary to constitute robbery must be employed before the property is stolen. If the stealing be first, and the force afterwards, the offense is not robbery, but stealing from the person.”

After which the case was heard again before the Indiana Supreme Court, who reviewed their position with regard to the defendant leaving the property after the threatening behaviour, further noting that in Paul v. State the court had ruled a store clerk as solely responsible for the contents stolen, and so a conviction of robbery could lawfully stand.

It also noted that in Eckelberry, the court had concluded that when the defendant injured their victim immediately after taking their property, the two events were merely equal parts of the same act, therefore the court reversed the appeal court decision and upheld the robbery charge in full.

Brown v. Kendall

US Criminal Law

Brown v. Kendall
‘Dog Fight’ by Vladimir I

Burden of proof in an action for trespass and assault and battery falls subject to examination when after a fight between two dogs, the plaintiff is left seriously injured and in want of redress.

In 1850, the two parties were caught up in a vicious dog fight involving their respective animals, and while the now deceased defendant took deliberate steps to separate them, the plaintiff was accidentally struck in the eye by the defendant’s walking stick, as he stepped backwards during the melee.

In response, the plaintiff commenced a suit for tortious damages for trespass vi et armis (trespass by force and arms) on the supposition that the injurious blow was a deliberate act, and that the carelessness and neglect of the defendant was the cause, and not the location of the plaintiff when the stick was drawn back.

As was common at the time of litigation, Chapter 93 § 7 of the Massachusetts Revised Statutes allowed clams for assault and battery to stand, despite the death of the accused, and so following his passing, the defendant was represented by his executrix, whereupon the district court judge instructed the jury to decide upon the principle that:

“If the jury believe, that it was the duty of the defendant to interfere, then the burden of proving negligence on the part of the defendant, and ordinary care on the part of the plaintiff, is on the plaintiff. If the jury believe, that the act of interference in the fight was unnecessary, then the burden of proving extraordinary care on the part of the defendant, or want of ordinary care on the part of the plaintiff, is on defendant.”

On this occasion, the jury returned a verdict in favour of the plaintiff, while the executrix sought to challenge the finding in the Massachusetts Supreme Court, on the insistence that the injury was accidental and potentially unavoidable on the part of her late husband.

Here, the court relied upon Powers v. Russell, in which Shaw CJ had held that in instances:

“[W]here the party having the burden of proof gives competent and prima facie evidence of a fact, and the adverse party, instead of producing proof which would go to negative the same proposition of fact, proposes to show another and a distinct proposition which avoids the effect of it, there the burden of proof shifts, and rests upon the party proposing to show the latter fact.”

Which indicated that unless the plaintiff could show sound reasoning why the injury arose through negligence, there was insufficient grounds for a jury to decide with confidence, thus the court was now convinced that when choosing to separate the two animals, the deceased was, by virtue of his avoiding potential harm to his dog, acting lawfully and within his rights as an owner, and so while moving backwards with his fullest attentions on the fight, it was held by the court that:

“If the act of hitting the plaintiff was unintentional, on the part of the defendant, and done in the doing of a lawful act, then the defendant was not liable, unless it was done in the want of exercise of due care adapted to the exigency of the case, and therefore such want of due care became part of the plaintiff’s case, and the burden of proof was on the plaintiff to establish it.”

Upon which the previous verdict was dismissed and a new trial ordered on the pretence that unless irrefutable evidence could provide that the defendant had been wilfully negligent in an act of carelessness, there was simply no legal basis for recovery by the plaintiff.

Baender v. Barnett

US Criminal Law

Baender v. Bennett
‘Five Dollar Gold Coin’ by Toby Mikle

Confession to a crime under federal statute leads to the incarceration of a felon, who later cites a constitutional violation when revoking his awareness of the act imprisoned for.

Having been found in possession of counterfeit coin dies, the petitioner acquiesced to the charge and was summarily indicted and sentenced under 18 U.S.C.A. § 487, which reads:

“Whoever, without lawful authority, possesses any such die, hub, or mold, or any part thereof, or permits the same to be used for or in aid of the counterfeiting of any such coins of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than fifteen years, or both.”

Later claiming a violation of the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the petitioner argued that the statute failed to acknowledge whether a charge of possession was established through conscious knowledge or by accidental means, a contention dismissed by the District Court of Northern California, who concluded:

“Such is the possession intended by the indictment, and such is the possession, the petitioner having pleaded guilty to the indictment, that he must be held to have had. Otherwise he was not guilty. He might have pleaded not guilty, and upon trial shown that he did not know the dies were in his possession.”

Appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court under writ of habeas corpus, the petitioner again cited that the statute was incriminating by effect, however, the Court referred to United States v. Kirby, in which it had stressed that:

“All laws should receive a sensible construction. General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence. It will always, therefore, be presumed that the Legislature intended exceptions to its language, which would avoid results of this character.”

While again in United States v. Jin Fuey Moy, the Court had later explained how:

“A statute must be construed, if fairly possible, so as to avoid, not only the conclusion that it is unconstitutional, but also grave doubts upon that score.”

Thus it was for these reasons that the Court held the previous decision as lawful, while reminding the petitioner that although the U.S. Constitution is designed to safeguard the needs and rights of its citizens, there was equal importance for Congress to enforce the punishment of those found possessing the means with which to duplicate, and thereby counterfeit, U.S. currency in all its forms.

Adams v. People

US Criminal Law

Adams v. People
Image: ‘Railway Carriages’ by Vincent Van Gogh

Conspiracy to rob and the causation of death, while both separate in their context, are brought together to when a jury determines a sustainable conviction, despite the absence of witnesses and minimal evidence with which to rely upon.

In 1883, four men were found guilty of wanton killing after colluding in their pursuit of depriving strangers of their personal belongings on a train carriage in Madison county, Indiana. This criminal activity ultimately resulted in the death of a single victim, which while itself was exempt from first-hand witness testimony, nonetheless left the jury satisfied enough to pass a verdict for murder.

In response, two of the defendants sought a continuance of proceedings for the unheard testimony of two key witnesses who had failed to show on the day of the trial. Having been presented to the Supreme Court of Illinois, the judge recounted the events preceding the victim’s death, while noting the defendants contention with previous jury instructions.

While the defendants had robbed two individuals at gunpoint, the first of them had been forced to jump from the moving rail carriage, after which he came across the body of the second victim further along the rail lines. His death had been caused through the crushing of his skull, but there was nothing to otherwise indicate exactly how he had died, except by an assumption that once robbed, he too had been forced to jump from the carriage, or had been murdered and thrown, neither of which could be proven first-hand.

When instructing the jury, the trial judge had remarked that:

“[I]f defendants did, by threats of violence to the person, intimidation, or by displaying deadly weapons in a threatening manner, cause the said Patrick Knight to leap or jump from the car while in motion….and thereby he was killed, as charged in the indictment, and if the jury so believe, from the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that such are the facts, they should find the defendants guilty.”

Further adding:

“[T]hat if the defendants conspired to rob Patrick Knight, and with the intent to conceal said crime of robbery did force him to jump….they should find the defendants guilty.”

Here, the defendants argued that there was a lack of evidence upon which to determine that the men charged were guilty of the crime both alleged and now convicted, and thus pleaded for a continuance, so as to enable the depositions of the witnesses unrepresented.

With reference to the charge, the court explained that under Illinois statute the definition of murder was:

“The unlawful killing of a human being, in the peace of the people, with malice aforethought, either express or implied. Malice shall be implied where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

And that:

“Provided, always, that where such involuntary killing shall happen in the commission of an unlawful act, which, in its consequences, naturally tends to destroy the life of a human being, or is committed in the prosecution of a felonious intent, the offence shall be deemed and adjudged to be murder.”

While in regard to the victims expulsion from the carriage, s.142 of ‘Greenleaf on Evidence’ stressed that:

“Forcing a person to do an act which causes his death, renders the death the guilty deed of him who compelled the deceased to do the act.”

While s.147 added that:

“Malice may be proved by evidence of gross recklessness of human life, where, in any manner, the life of another is knowingly, cruelly and grossly endangered, whether by actual violence, or by inhuman privation or exposure, and death is caused thereby.”

Thus the court held that regardless of the doubts cast by the defendants, where a jury is satisfied beyond any reasonable doubt as the warrant of a conviction, it is beyond the power of the court to interfere with that decision, despite the indignations of the accused, upon which the original judgment was upheld.

People v. Berry

US Criminal Law

People v Berry
Image: ‘It’s Hard to Explain Murder’ by Dean Cornwell

First degree murder and involuntary manslaughter fall within the same category of unlawful killing, however when the defendant is subject to the misdirection of a jury, the sentence can be one in excess of the prescribed term. In this matter, a man convicted of strangling his wife challenged the trial court decision on grounds of both emotional and mental vulnerability.

In summer of 1974, the appellant married a woman more than half his age, before she travelled back to her home country of Israel. Upon her return, she declared her love for another man with whom she had enjoyed sexual intercourse with on a number of occasions. What then followed was a series of emotional inducements and sexual engagements with the appellant that preceded almost immediate emotional and physical rejections and spurning of his advances.

This pattern of behaviour lasted for a period of around ten days, after which the appellant choked his wife to the point of unconsciousness. Having reported him to the police authorities, the appellant was arrested and charged with assault likely to produce great bodily injury, as per s.245(a)(4) of the California Penal Code, which reads:

“Any person who commits an assault upon the person of another by any means of force likely to produce great bodily injury shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine…or by both the fine and imprisonment.”

Within twenty-four hours of her returning home, the two parties began arguing, whereupon the appellant again strangled his wife, instead using a telephone cord until she was dead. Having confessed, the appellant was charged with first degree murder under ss. 187 and 189 of the California Penal Code which read:

“187(a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought”

189. All murder which is perpetrated by means of…lying in wait, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing…with the intent to inflict death, is murder of the first degree.”

Upon which the appellant appealed on grounds that the jury were misdirected when failing to consider the defence submitted by his instructed psychiatrist of voluntary manslaughter under s.192 of the Penal Code, which states:

Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of three kinds: (a) Voluntary – upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion (b) Involuntary and (c) Vehicular…”

And that due to his mental instability, he was entitled to mitigation under a defence of diminished responsibility as per People v. Mosher, in which malice was eliminated by way of mental defect.

Upon presentation, the California Supreme Court examined s.192 of the California Penal Code and drew reference to People v. Logan, in which the court held that:

“[I]t is left to the jurors to say whether or not the facts and circumstances in evidence are sufficient to lead them to believe that the defendant did, or to create a reasonable doubt in their minds as to whether or not he did, commit his offense under a heat of passion…[F]or the fundamental of the inquiry is whether or not the defendant’s reason was, at the time of his act, so disturbed or obscured by some passion—not necessarily fear and never, of course, the passion for revenge—to such an extent as would render ordinary men of average disposition liable to act rashly or without due deliberation and reflection, and from this passion rather than from judgment.”

While noting that in People v. Valentine, it had been agreed that verbal provocation would be sufficient to constitute arousal of heat or passion.

With regard to the claim of diminished responsibility, it was also agreed that while diminished capacity typically required evidence of mental illness, mental defect or intoxication, it had been recently held in People v. Long, that mental illness or defect without intoxication was equally sufficient as a defence.

Unfortunately for the appellant, there had at no time, been any mention of mental deficiency within his defence, and so while it was held that the jury were incorrectly directed to determine guilt without consideration of s.192, there could be no mitigation for diminished responsibility, therefore only the first element of the appeal was reversed.