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….”

Hopkins v. Commonwealth (1904)

US Criminal Law

Hopkins v. Commonwealth
‘La Miseria’ by Cristóbal Rojas

Murderous acts, or at the very least, assaults designed to cause significant harm, are nonetheless applicable to the death of a person, who at the time of the offence, was suffering from grave illness or an otherwise delicate constitution, as was found in this case.

Upon indictment before a Knox County grand jury in 1904, the appellant was charged with murder and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, whereupon he argued the the judgment was unlawful in that the jury had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his actions were directly attributable to the victim’s death  at a time following the act.

By way of background, the appellant had chosen to leave his position as a labourer, whereupon his employer had pursued him out of anger, before verbally abusing the appellant in public before the two men settled their differences and went their separate ways.

Having met again in a convenience store, the now deceased employer again used profane and abusive language toward the appellant, whereupon the appellant stole a hand gun from the store clerk’s keeping and went after the deceased, later to shoot and wound him  on public highway.

Two months after the shooting the employer died not from the shooting itself, but as a result of an existing diagnosis of consumption (tuberculosis), a common disease at the time, however the jury found that the appellant deliberately and purposefully assassinated the employer, and that his actions exacerbated the illness and thereby accelerated his otherwise eventual death.

At the point of appeal, the Kentucky Court of Appeals first referred to p.129 of the Hand-Book of Criminal Law, in which W.M. L. Clark Jr. wrote: 

“The fact that the person killed was diseased and in ill health, or wounded by another, and was likely or sure to die when the blow was given, or that after the blow was given he neglected or refused to take proper care of himself, or submit to an operation by which he could have been cured, is no defense.”

Before further noting that on p.428 of A History of the Pleas of the Crown (Vol. I), Sir Matthew Hale stated that:

“If a man be sick of some such disease which possibly, by course of nature, would end his life in half a year, and another gives him a wound or hurt which hastens his end by irritating and provoking the disease to operate more violently or speedily, this hastening of his death sooner than it would have been is homicide or murder….”

And so despite claims of remoteness as to the actual cause of death, the court dismissed the appeal and upheld the previous judgment in full, while holding 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.”

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.”

Willard v. First Church of Christ, Scientist (1972)

US Property Law

Willard v First Church of Christ, Scientist
Image: ‘Berkeley’ by Richard Diebenkorn

Reservation of interest for a third party to a conveyance when honouring the intentions of the vendor was at one point impossible, however in this matter the court broke with tradition for the sake of modernity and allowed the claim to stand.

In 1972, litigation commenced when a somewhat unconventional conveyance was initiated by parties not entirely privy to its completion. This began when the part owners of conjoined plots decided to sell their property along with the adjoining vacant plot, despite having title only to their home, while the second plot was itself used by a local church adjacent to the site for parking purposes under express permission by the landowner.

At the point of sale, the vendor approached the landowner and explained that a joint sale was under offer, and that with her permission, the two parties would stand to profit at the price suggested. Having considered the opportunity, the owner requested that an easement be inserted into the deeds for the second plot, after which the sale went through as hoped.

Unfortunately for one reason or another, the purchaser and now respondent was unaware that the easement existed, and so now sought quiet title to the plot, whereupon the district court upheld the claim on grounds that under common law, a grantor cannot reserve interest to a stranger to a title, and therefore the easement was unlawful and void, as was also expressed in ‘The Law of Real Property’ (1939) and ‘Reservations in Favor of Strangers’ (1953) both of which stated how while a reservation allowed a grantor’s whole interest to pass to a grantee, it reverted a newly created interest in the grantor, but not to a theoretical third party to the disposition.

Presented in the Supreme Court of California, the appellant church argued that under art.5 s.1085(a) of the California Civil Code, interest to a disposition of property was assignable to persons not named in the deed, however the Court held that as the appellants were a corporation and not individual entities, the statute could not reasonably apply.

Instead, the Court referred to both Townsend v. Cable and Garza v. Grayson, within which the supreme courts of Kentucky and Oregon had abandoned the existing common law rule in favour of following the wishes of the grantor, a position subsequently adopted by the Court as a show of indifference to the now outdated and restrictive approach to property conveyance.

It was then argued by the respondents that the easement was invalid as the property insurers had not relied upon it when drafting their policies, however there was no evidence to support such a claim and so the Court held that a balance must be struck between the want of policy and the equitable nature of the claim, which on this occasion fell in favour of the needs of the grantor, despite the limitations of the statute presented. It was thus for this reason that the Court upheld the appeal and reversed the previous judgment.

 

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.