Today marks exactly one year to the day that I first started writing the ‘voluminous’ Case Law Compendium: United States Case Law, and its pretty incredible to think that so much time has already passed, particularly given that I’m not even midway through the book yet!
Anyway, needless to say my hard work continues on undaunted, and I’m hoping to share the first half of the criminal law section here in the next couple of weeks, so watch this space if you’re interested to learn more…
As is peculiar to criminal law in most jurisdictions, the necessary component for murder requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of the both the act itself (actus reus), and the subjective intention (mens rea) of those accused, and so on this occasion the English criminal courts were left with no option other than to reduce a murder sentence to manslaughter, on grounds that there was simply insufficient evidence to adduce deliberate and unlawful killing, as opposed to what could only be construed as a momentary loss of control on the part of the defendant.
Having been born to unloving and thus dysfunctional parents, the appellant had been later adopted by a well educated and devoted couple when aged only eight years of age, and whose only wish was for her to have a better life than the one she had left behind. Sadly during her adolescence, the appellant was further diagnosed with an IQ of just 74, a personality disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prolonged depression, for which she was on prescribed medication.
After meeting her former partner at the young age of sixteen, the appellant soon became pregnant, and gave birth to their son Billy two years later, and although the two of them remained together for a further three years, her partner was eventually incarcerated for assaulting her; an act which had followed years of his routine verbal and physical abuse towards her both before, and after, their son’s arrival.
At the point of her indictment before the Central Criminal Court, the appellant was reported to have called the ambulance services complaining that her son had stopped breathing, and yet despite clear instructions to perform emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) at the time of the call, her son was pronounced dead almost five hours later; after which it was claimed by court that the appellant had murdered her son by way of asphyxiation, and that there was sufficient medical evidence upon which to sustain the conviction; whereupon the appellant challenged the verdict in the Court of Appeals.
Here, the appellant contended that when reaching summary judgment, the trial court had erroneously accepted circumstantial evidence relating to previous interactions with her son, and which presented her in a poor light, however the court referred to R v Penman, in which the deciding court had held that:
“[W]here it is necessary to place before the jury evidence of part of a continual background of history relevant to the offence charged in the indictment and without the totality of which the account placed before the jury would be incomplete or incomprehensible, then the fact that the whole account involves including evidence establishing the commission of an offence with which the accused is not charged is not of itself a ground for excluding the evidence.”
Thus the first aspect of her appeal was denied, while on a second count, the appellant claimed that lack of witness testimony, and only one physical symptom of trauma, prevented the court from establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that she had intended to murder, or at the very least unlawfully kill her son in the moments before his death.
Here the court was reliant upon the presence of petechial haemorrhaging upon her child’s face, which in most instances was attributable to asphyxial death. However, there was also theoretical argument that prolonged resuscitation could also prove a contributory factor; yet further circumstantial evidence proposed this as incredible, based upon the appellant’s refusal to perform CPR whilst waiting for the ambulance crew to arrive, and via witness testimony citing visible evidence of the symptoms upon their arrival.
In addition to this, there was further evidence of bleeding from the child’s ears, which according to expert medical testimony, had often been found present when addressing traumatic asphyxiation cases in which young children had become trapped in washing lines, afact which only exacerbated the suggestion that the appellant had either strangled or smothered her son whilst alone with him, therefore the court held that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to determine that the appellant had unlawfully killed her child.
This left only the third count, which was that a murder conviction was unsafe due to the first two factors, and that there was simply no direct evidence to support the contention that the appellant had wilfully and with malice, killed her child, but that instead, the best the court could hope to rely upon was a manslaughter charge; an argument that caused the court to uphold the third ground of appeal before quashing the murder conviction on grounds that in R v Stacey it had held that:
“[A]n intent to do serious bodily harm may be quickly formed and soon regretted; but so may a less serious intent, simply to stop a child crying by handling him in a way that any responsible adult would realise would cause serious damage or certainly might do so. That would only provide the mental element necessary for manslaughter.”
Jury conviction beyond any reasonable doubt can often prove protracted and not without its tenuous merits, however on this occasion the determination that murder was the unequivocal cause of death is brought into stark controversy, when the introduction of alternate medical evidence casts serious doubts upon exactly what happened in the time prior to the victim’s death.
In May 1956, the appellant American Serviceman and three other men were embroiled in a fracas when during the disagreement, the appellant stabbed one of those involved, after which the victim later died of broncho-pneumonia whilst recovering in hospital, and upon which the appellant was indicted for murder and found guilty in Leeds Assizes before being sentenced to death.
Under appeal, an investigation by the American authorities revealed new evidence put forward by two highly reputable medical doctors, and which cited that the cause of death was actually related to the administration of terramycin, a commonly prescribed antibiotic that on this occasion, had triggered and allergic reaction that in turn led to diarrhoea, and which was further exacerbated through its continued administration, despite immediate instructions to cease its use.
In addition to this, hospital staff had also intravenously introduced disproportionate doses of saline, which likewise resulted in a pulmonary oedema through waterlogged lungs, a condition that left untreated, causes broncho-pneumonia, and upon which it had been established as the direct cause of death, while the stab wound itself had since been shown to have healed with no known complications.
Faced with such weighty and compelling testimony, the Criminal Court of Appeal turned to a number of distinguishable cases before relying upon R v Harding, in which it had earlier held that:
“Acquittal must follow if the evidence is such as to cause a reasonable doubt, because that is only another way of saying that the prosecution have failed to establish the case.”
Therefore when giving consideration to the effect that this information would have upon a criminal jury, the court deliberated in saying that when faced with such acute medical facts they saw no reason to suspect that the murder conviction would have been rendered unsustainable, and so with little more to debate the appeal was allowed and the conviction set aside in full, while the court reminded the parties that under normal circumstances:
“[D]eath resulting from any normal treatment employed to deal with a felonious injury may be regarded as caused by the felonious injury.”
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.
Having recently completed this preliminary chapter of the book, I have provided a list of the cases covered in the civil procedure section for those that might be mildly curious. I would also add that it’s been a genuine pleasure reading and analysing these cases, all of which have helped educate me as to the intricate nature of State and Federal legalities, and I can only hope the readers will take as much pleasure in their reading, as I have in their writing.
Today marks the commencement of my writing ‘The Case Law Compendium: United States Law’, the second instalment of ‘The Black Letter’ series of books, and my excitement is quietly simmering away as I begin preparing for the months ahead.
This compendium covers the principle law modules offered within leading American universities and Law Schools at Juris Doctor level, and will therefore include civil procedure, constitutional law, contract law, criminal law, property law and tort law. While I appreciate there has been a shift towards comparative and international law, particularly within educational institutions such as Harvard University, when similarly examining both Stanford and Yale, there appears an inclination to adhere to the core fields as shown above, hence I have decided to remain true to that ethos for simplicity’s sake.
While consciously adopting a linear approach, I aim to include around 385 case studies – well over twice the number found in ‘The Case Law Compendium: English & European Law’, and although there is perhaps obvious reason for this, particularly given the size and legal structure of American jurisdiction, I feel the end result will provide law students with more than sufficient insight into the mechanics of notable U.S. case law.
On a personal note, I am very much looking forward to this journey, and estimate that the book should be finished and available for purchase around summer of 2019, adding that I will consciously try to publish new case studies to this website where time permits.
In closing, I would like to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to those of you who purchased my first book (or plan to soon) and I sincerely hope that my efforts have been of valued assistance when working towards your chosen vocations.
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.