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.”

R v Stone; R v Dobinson (1976)

English Criminal Law

R v Stone (John Edward)
‘The Earth (Zemliia)’ by Bohdan Pevny

In this landmark criminal law case, the distinction between indifference to, and perception of risk, are carefully weighed, in order to appreciate that when compared for their relevance to recklessness, the outcome remains the same, despite differing routes to dire consequences.

In 1972, an eccentric sibling moved into the home of her older disabled brother after a falling out with her sister. The terms of the living arrangement was that of a landlord and tenant, in so much that rent was paid and each were free to live their lives independently of one another. While the brother lived with his mistress and housekeeper along with his mentally challenged son, the sister occupied the front room of the home and maintained a high degree of privacy, despite openly suffering from anorexia nervosa (although undiagnosed at the time); a condition that precluded regular meals in favour of a low bodyweight, that in many instances was known to result in premature death, or at best, extreme immobility.

After a period of almost nearly three years, the sister’s health deteriorated to a point that she became permanently bedridden and unable to clean or feed herself. Despite repeated express concerns from the mistress to the brother regards his sister’s condition, there were no attempts made by the either party to extend their efforts in seeking medical help beyond that of unsuccessfully trying to locate her doctor. When matters continued with no real intervention, the now seriously ill woman was eventually found dead in her bed, amidst evidence that no care had been taken to tend to her toiletry needs or physical health requirements, prior to her death.

When reported to the police, the two defendants were summoned and convicted of manslaughter upon grounds of a breach of duty of care through recklessness, whereupon the two parties appealed under the presumption of diminished responsibility. When considered under appeal, the judges found that irrespective of whether the couple claimed to have taken limited steps to get the deceased help, there was insufficient evidence to avoid the conviction of recklessness, as (i) there was adequate foresight of the risk posed to the dying woman while under the assumed care of her brother and mistress, and (ii) that the conduct taken to redress such a risk, was made with little regard to the seriousness of her condition.

Ultimately, and when taken in context, the court felt that it mattered not which route had been taken, only that the destination resulted in her death; and that both parties had been made aware of possible options, yet continued to ignore the duty bestowed upon those assigned the care of a vulnerable person, in particular a close relative with a history of self-neglect and malnutrition.