Jones v. U.S. (1962)

US Criminal Law

Jones v. U.S.
‘Hungry Child’ by Vinayak Deshmukh

Duty of care for the purposes of a criminal conviction must always be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and so when two women are tried for the neglect and subsequent death of the younger of two siblings, the court is left wanting in the face of an appeal that exploits the absence of legal obligation and contractual structure, along with fresh evidence of a judicial error.

In 1957, a young single girl fell pregnant with a boy whose birth resulted in her asking that the appellant take the child and care for it in exchange for monthly payments, to which the appellant agreed, only for the same mother to fall pregnant again some months later with another boy, who on this occasion fell sick and was forced to remain hospitalised for a determinate period.

Upon his discharge, the mother and second child then lived with the appellant for a a number of weeks, before she left to return home with her parents, thereby leaving the appellant to raise and care for the two children unaided and now unpaid.

Following a number of doctor visits concerning bronchial infections and treatment for diarrhoea, it was mentioned by the physician that the younger child was to be taken to hospital to receive much needed medical care, however the appellant ignored the request and continued to care for the boys alone.

This arrangement continued uninterrupted until two utility debt collectors noticed the boys in a downstairs basement and reported their findings to the local police, who investigated the matter, only to find one of the children living in what could best be described a wire mesh chicken coup, while the youngest child was living in a bassinet, however both boys were found to covered in cockroaches and showing visible signs of malnutrition, at which point they were both removed and placed into urgent hospital care.

Unfortunately some thirty-four hours after his admission, the youngest of the children died from the effects of prolonged malnutrition, and so both women were indicted before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on charges of abuse, maltreatment and involuntary manslaughter, the latter of which only the appellant was found guilty and convicted accordingly.

Having challenged the judgment before the Columbia District Court of Appeals, the appellant argued that the jury had found insufficient evidence to support a finding of legal or even contractual duty of care when providing food and water to the deceased, whereupon the court referred to People v. Beardsley, in which the Michigan Supreme Court held that:

“[U]nder some circumstances the omission of a duty owed by one individual to another, where such omission results in the death of the one to whom the duty is owing, will make the other chargeable with manslaughter.”

However the caveat to this precedent was that it must be equally proven that a legal, contractual but not moral obligation underpinned the duties, and further that a failure to execute them would result in the immediate and direct cause of death and nothing less.

In addition to this, it was also argued that the trial court had failed to adequately instruct the jury to look for any evidence of a legal duty, and that while the jury had retired to deliberate a decision, the judge had communicated with the jury by way of a hand-written note, yet failed to notify the appellant’s counsel, thus the verdict was now automatically unsound, at which point the appeal court reversed the previous judgment and remanded the case back to the district court while holding that:

“Proper procedure requires that a jury be instructed in the courtroom in the presence of counsel and the defendant, and that counsel be given opportunity to except to the additional instruction.”

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….”

Bush v. Commonwealth (1880)

US Criminal Law

Bush v Commonwealth
Image: ‘Kentucky Derby 2017’ by Jim Cantrell

Murder and involuntary manslaughter, while both implicated as a cause of death, stem from quite different modus operandi, and so on this occasion, the misdirection of a jury almost led to the hanging of an innocent man.

Around 1880, the appellant was indicted for murder, after an accidental gunshot injured a third party during a confrontation between two men. While pleaded that the shot was fired out of self-defence, the trial judge directed the jury to determine his guilt as below:

“If the jury believe from the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant, John Bush, in Fayette county, and before the finding of the indictment, wilfully shot Annie Vanmeter with a pistol, and that she died from the effects of the wound then inflicted upon her, whether said wound was the sole cause or was a contributory agency in producing death, when such shooting was not necessary, and not reasonably believed by the defendant to be necessary for his own protection from immediate death or great bodily harm then threatening him, the jury should find the defendant guilty: guilty of murder, if the killing were also done with malice aforethought, or guilty of manslaughter if the killing were done in sudden heat and passion, and without malice.

Upon this, the jury returned a guilty verdict, despite the fact that the victim died, not from the wound, but from the transmission of scarlet fever from the physician treating her injury, while it was further implied that any deliberate and cruel act must stem from malice, regardless of contributory factors.

Taken to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the court took issue with almost all of the judicial approaches, and reminded that s.262 of the Criminal Code expressly states that:

“Upon an indictment for an offense consisting of different degrees, the defendant may be found guilty of any degree not higher than that charged in the indictment, and may be found guilty of any offense included in that charge in the indictment.”

This translated that reliance upon the direction of the judge without any explanation as to how the victim died, would by default, lead to a wrongful execution, whereas observation of the events preceding her demise showed clearly that a non-fatal injury would have been equally chargeable as wilful and malicious shooting, stabbing or poisoning under s.2 art.6 ch.29 of the General Statutes of Kentucky 1873, or shooting and wounding in sudden affray, or in sudden heat without previous malice as per s.1 art.17 ch.29 of the same Act.

Thus it was for these quite distinct polarities of reasoning, that the Court reversed the judgment with instruction to retrial upon the very principles applied.