Hubbard v. Commonwealth (1947)

US Criminal Law

Hubbard v. Commonwealth
‘Soldiers Resting on Omaha Beach’ by Manuel Bromberg

The willful if not reckless action of a drunken soldier lies central to a manslaughter charge that almost left the defendant facing imprisonment for something (i) he did not do and (ii) could not recall.

Having been temporarily released from military service during the tail end of WWII, the defendant was arrested for public drunkenness, and so too inebriated to stand trial, he was ordered by the county judge to spend time in jail, whereupon he became violently aggressive and refused to leave the court.

After falling to the ground, the defendant continued to resist the actions of the jailer, who after trying hard with others to get him up, left the room and collapsed of a fatal heart attack, upon which the attending doctors later announced that his death had resulted from acute dilatation of the heart brought on by sudden physical exercise and excitement arising from the scuffle.

Tried in the circuit court of Jackson County, the jury found the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter  subject to a prison sentence of two years, upon which the defendant explained that he had no memory of the events and that the deceased was his friend.

Challenged before the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the court took steps to reevaluate the charge and determine whether the events were instead indicative of involuntary manslaughter, and so turning first to Hopkins v. Commonwealth, the court noted how it had held that:

“If one unlawfully wounds another, and thereby hastens or accelerates his death by reason of some disease with which he is afflicted, the wrongdoer is guilty of the crime thereby resulting.”

While in Commonwealth v. Couch it had also held that:

“Involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another in doing some unlawful act, but without intent to kill.”

However in Livingston v. Commonwealth, the court had also held that when a blow is struck upon an individual with a pre-existing and potentially fatal illness:

“The blow is neither the proximate cause of the death, nor is it, though made by extraneous circumstances to accelerate it, linked with it in the regular chain of causes and consequences. A new and wholly independent instrumentality is interposed in the shape of the disease; and in contemplation of law, the death stroke is inflicted by the hand of Providence, and not by the hand of violence.”

Upon which the court noted that the defendant had not at any point, made actual physical contact with the deceased, a fact which was further compounded by the truth that the deceased had complained of ill-health that day, and yet chose to continue working in a familiar and frequently stressful environment, therefore the court abruptly reversed the previous judgment in full, while holding that:

“[T]o warrant a conviction of homicide the act of the accused must be the proximate cause of death….”

Commonwealth v. Couch (1908)

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 holding that:

“Involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another in doing some unlawful act, but without intent to kill.”