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.”

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.

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.