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.”

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.

People v. Berry (1976)

US Criminal Law

People v Berry
Image: ‘It’s Hard to Explain Murder’ by Dean Cornwell

First degree murder and involuntary manslaughter fall within the same category of unlawful killing, however when the defendant is subject to the misdirection of a jury, the sentence can be one in excess of the prescribed term. In this matter, a man convicted of strangling his wife challenged the trial court decision on grounds of both emotional and mental vulnerability.

In summer of 1974, the appellant married a woman more than half his age, before she travelled back to her home country of Israel. Upon her return, she declared her love for another man with whom she had enjoyed sexual intercourse with on a number of occasions. What then followed was a series of emotional inducements and sexual engagements with the appellant that preceded almost immediate emotional and physical rejections and spurning of his advances.

This pattern of behaviour lasted for a period of around ten days, after which the appellant choked his wife to the point of unconsciousness. Having reported him to the police authorities, the appellant was arrested and charged with assault likely to produce great bodily injury, as per s.245(a)(4) of the California Penal Code, which reads:

“Any person who commits an assault upon the person of another by any means of force likely to produce great bodily injury shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine…or by both the fine and imprisonment.”

Within twenty-four hours of her returning home, the two parties began arguing, whereupon the appellant again strangled his wife, instead using a telephone cord until she was dead. Having confessed, the appellant was charged with first degree murder under ss. 187 and 189 of the California Penal Code which read:

“187(a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought”

189. All murder which is perpetrated by means of…lying in wait, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing…with the intent to inflict death, is murder of the first degree.”

Upon which the appellant appealed on grounds that the jury were misdirected when failing to consider the defence submitted by his instructed psychiatrist of voluntary manslaughter under s.192 of the Penal Code, which states:

Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of three kinds: (a) Voluntary – upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion (b) Involuntary and (c) Vehicular…”

And that due to his mental instability, he was entitled to mitigation under a defence of diminished responsibility as per People v. Mosher, in which malice was eliminated by way of mental defect.

Upon presentation, the California Supreme Court examined s.192 of the California Penal Code and drew reference to People v. Logan, in which the court held that:

“[I]t is left to the jurors to say whether or not the facts and circumstances in evidence are sufficient to lead them to believe that the defendant did, or to create a reasonable doubt in their minds as to whether or not he did, commit his offense under a heat of passion…[F]or the fundamental of the inquiry is whether or not the defendant’s reason was, at the time of his act, so disturbed or obscured by some passion—not necessarily fear and never, of course, the passion for revenge—to such an extent as would render ordinary men of average disposition liable to act rashly or without due deliberation and reflection, and from this passion rather than from judgment.”

While noting that in People v. Valentine, it had been agreed that verbal provocation would be sufficient to constitute arousal of heat or passion.

With regard to the claim of diminished responsibility, it was also agreed that while diminished capacity typically required evidence of mental illness, mental defect or intoxication, it had been recently held in People v. Long, that mental illness or defect without intoxication was equally sufficient as a defence.

Unfortunately for the appellant, there had at no time, been any mention of mental deficiency within his defence, and so while it was held that the jury were incorrectly directed to determine guilt without consideration of s.192, there could be no mitigation for diminished responsibility, therefore only the first element of the appeal was reversed.

 

R v Cheshire (1991)

English Criminal Law

R v Cheshire
Image: ‘The Surgeon’ by Jose Perez

Novus actus interveniens’ or breaking the chain of causation, is a maxim often relied upon in criminal cases, however, while the principle itself is simple enough, the facts required to establish it prove far from clear. In a case involving the potentially fatal shooting of an unwitting victim, the surgical aftercare provided, became subject to the scrutiny of the courts when death followed soon afterwards.

In late 1987, the deceased was party to an argument with the now appellant, which resulted in three shots being fired from a concealed handgun. The first bullet was fired in the air above them, while the second and third entered the victim’s upper thigh and abdomen, shortly before the appellant fled from the scene.

Having been rushed to hospital, the surgeons cleaned up both wounds, while reconnecting the thigh bone and undertaking an extensive bowel resection in order to prevent further complications. In the weeks following his admission, the deceased complained of breathing difficulties, at which point a tracheotomy was performed, after a simple ventilating machine had failed to properly address the problem.

Around a month later his condition deteriorated, and so investigative measures were taken to inspect the stomach wound, while the deceased began to suffer with vomitous discharge and chest infections, later resulting in fluid permeation of the lungs. It was then, after numerous complaints and several visits by the consultant general surgeon, surgical registrar, orthopaedic registrar and finally the house surgeon, that his breathing pattern was recognised as ‘stridor’, a disturbing vibration typically associated with an obstruction of the larynx or windpipe.

Unfortunately, despite the intervention of a medical registrar and urgent cardiac massage, the deceased died as a result of mucus blockage of the windpipe resulting from excessive tracheotomy scarring, upon which the resident pathologist concluded that:

“I give as the cause of death cardio-respiratory arrest due to gunshot wounds of the abdomen and leg.”

At the trial, the judge directed the jury to establish a conviction of recklessness on the part of the hospital, which if proven, would support the breaking of the chain of causation on grounds that the hospital had failed to properly identify the actual cause of death, and that in doing so, the appellant’s actions were now secondary to the death of the victim. After a degree of jury deliberation, a verdict was passed in favour of the hospital, before the appellant challenged the judgment under s.23 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968.

Presented to the Court of Appeal, consideration was given to the principle of recklessness and gross negligence, while particular reference was made to the words of Goff LJ in R v Pagett, who said:

“Even where it is necessary to direct the jury’s minds to the question of causation, it is usually enough to direct them simply that in law the accused’s act need not be the sole cause, or even the main cause, of the victim’s death, it being enough that his act contributed significantly to that result…nevertheless the intervention of a third person may be regarded as the sole cause of the victim’s death, thereby relieving the accused of criminal responsibility.”

However in R v Smith it was also argued by Parker CJ that:

“It seems to the court that if at the time of death the original wound is still an operating cause and a substantial cause, then the death can properly be said to be the result of the wound, albeit that some other cause of death is also operating. Only if it can be said that the original wounding is merely the setting in which another cause operates can it be said that the death does not result from the wound. Putting it in another way, only if the second cause is so overwhelming as to make the original wound merely part of the history can it be said that the death does not flow from the wound.”

Before Lane CJ later reiterated in R v Malcherek that:

“[T]he fact that the victim has died, despite or because of medical treatment for the initial injury given by careful and skilled medical practitioners, will not exonerate the original assailant from responsibility for the death.”

With careful appreciation of the medical evidence, along with reasoned accommodation of the high threshold of surgical margins of error, the Court held that despite the alleged negligence of the hospital staff, there was simply insufficient evidence to uphold the application of ‘novus actus interveniens’, and that even with the best medical team on hand to treat the deceased, the fundamental cause of death preceding the complication was, and remained, the shooting by the appellant, and so on those grounds the appeal was dismissed and the original murder charge upheld.