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.” 

Adams v. People (1884)

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.