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.” 

Anderson v. Minneapolis, St.Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railway Co. (1920)

US Tort Law

Anderson v Minneapolis
Image: ‘Train Painting’ by William Wray

The amendment of pleadings is an American civil right when free from the misdirection of a jury, and so on this occasion the intermingling of two events resulting in the destruction of property, allowed the claimant to establish reasonable causation before enjoying the benefits of restorative justice.

In August of 1918, it was alleged that sparks emitted from a locomotive engine owned by the defendants caused a bog fire that while unextinguished, continued to burn for an extended period, largely due to the usual drought conditions at the time. During early October, there were winds in excess of 75 miles per hour, which exacerbated the existing fire, while driving it towards the home of the claimant.

It was the subsequent effects of this natural occurrence that left the claimant’s home damaged and thus both the railway company and the Director General of Railroads ended up in the courts as co-defendants, as was permissible under § 10 of the Federal Control Act.

During the trial, there were two options open to the jury for a safe conviction, namely:

“If plaintiff was burned out by fire set by one of defendant’s engines in combination with some other fire not set by one of its engines, then it is liable.”

or:

“If the bog fire was set by one of defendant’s engines, and if one of defendant’s engines also set a fire or fires west of Kettle River, and those fires combined and burned over plaintiff’s property, then the defendant is liable.”

With confusion as to how best to approach the claim, the jury asked for confirmation as to whether liability could be found if it was agreed that the fire caused by the locomotive engine was significant enough to have been the primary contributor to the eventual fire that caused the damage, at which point the court agreed that it would. It was then that the claimant amended his pleading to one where both fires had been the sole cause of destruction to his home, as opposed to that of the bog fire alone.

While returning a verdict in favour of the claimant, the defendants argued that such pleading allowances were unlawful, before appealing to the St. Louis District Court, who denied a motion for a retrial, while allowing for the consideration of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Here consideration was given to both the discretion of the courts to allow for claim amendments, and the extent to which the Director General of Railroads is lawfully implicated. In the first instance, the Court explained how § 7784 of Ch. 77 of the Minnesota Statutes 1913 noted that:

“No variance between the allegations in the pleading and the proof is material unless it has actually misled the adverse party to his prejudice in maintaining his action or defence on the merits.”

Which on this occasion the court had already established which fires were attributable to the defendants, and at no point had any objection or evidence been shown to prove otherwise, while under § 4426 of Ch. 28 of the Minnesota Statutes 1913 also made it clear that:

“Each railroad corporation owning or operating a railroad in this state shall be responsible in damages to every person and corporation whose property may be injured or destroyed by fire communicated directly or indirectly by the locomotive engines in use upon the railroad owned or operated by such railroad corporation…”

It was further held that within the terms of the Transportation Act of 1920, Congress conferred no express limitations as to the powers of the Federal Control Act, and that evidence of this was available under §§ 202 and 206 of the amended statute, and so it was that for these reasons the Court refused to reverse the original decision and dismissed the appeal.

 

R v Miller (1983)

English Criminal Law

R v Miller
‘Carrying Mattresses’ by Stanley Spencer

Actus reus and mens rea, are two very widely used criminal law maxims that once were essential for the clarification of intention, but sadly over the passage of time, the former has become victim to legal abuses by lawyers seeking to bend a virtue that perhaps warrants review after hundreds of years of application.

In this matter, the accused was a homeless man, who after drinking a reasonable amount of alcohol, entered a vacant home, before taking up occupancy in an empty room. After lighting a cigarette, he then fell asleep on a mattress, at which point the cigarette began to ignite the mattress fibres, thereby causing it to slowly smoulder.

Upon waking, the appellant saw what was happening, but chose to simply get up from the mattress and walk into an adjacent room, before returning to sleep. It was not until the arrival of the local fire brigade, that he awoke again to discover that the room he had since left was now ablaze, and that significant fire damage had resulted from his failure to extinguish the burning mattress.

Upon summary, the appellant stood accused of recklessness causing criminal damage to another’s property, that in turn led to a conviction of arson under s.1(1)(3) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. While under appeal, it was argued that both mens rea and actus reus are key elements to a criminal conviction, and that because the appellant had left the room, he could not be found liable through inaction, as opposed to action (actus reus), while further arguing that he was under no obligation to extinguish the burning mattress, and that his mens rea was ultimately irrelevant to the proceeding fire.

The crux of this defence misdirection is that while actus reus explores the actions of a defendant, the reality of life is that inaction by its own virtue, is an equally destructive process when the party in question can see very clearly that it was his previous actions that initiated the root offence, and that there were sufficient steps available to the defendant to prevent the damage from spreading (including seeking the assistance of third parties to that effect). Therefore, a defence based upon the interpretation of a word does nothing to circumvent the social responsibility of those faced with potentially (yet avoidable) damaging situations.

While the appeal was dismissed, it was again put before the House of Lords who listened intently to a bargaining application for the quashing of an arson charge, before succinctly explaining that with no quarter for doubt, it was evident that the appellant had elected to recklessly avoid his personal obligation to prevent the fire from growing, in favour of distancing himself from his original action, regardless of the foreseeable consequences that followed.

Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd (1987)

English Tort Law

Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd
‘Naro Cinema’ by Marianne Kuhn

This appeal case explores the subjective reasoning behind duty of care and mindfulness of action when considering those nearby. In 1976, a cinema had been purchased and partially stripped clean of furnishings, as part of a renovation project by the new owners Littlewoods Ltd.

During the period between emptying the building and the resultant fire, there had been ongoing building works, that had been subjected to occasional acts of trespass and minor vandalism by local youths, despite typically applied security measures. When those reckless efforts had led to small fires and an eventual complete engulfing of the cinema in flames, it also caused substantial fire damage to two adjacent properties, who sought tortious remedy through an assumed duty of care and foresight, which the claimants felt could have prevented it. What then transpired, was that although the local police force and members of the community were aware of the transgressions leading up to the fire, they failed to notify the owners, therefore no additional steps were taken to tighten security and avoid the net result.

When the first hearing ruled against any liability, the appeal ended up with a similar outcome, as when applying the maxim ‘taking reasonable steps to prevent…’ it was deemed only fair in the event of unreported vandalism that the cinema had already been seen to have taken the expected steps to prevent vandalism or trespass, in accordance with societal norms. Likewise, the fact that previous attempts to start fires had gone unreported by the victims of such events, only seemed to fall under the umbrella of contributory negligence (at the exclusion of the defendants).