In a recent case, State v. Fisher, the NC Court of Appeals upheld an involuntary manslaughter based on the defendant’s act of dumping an intoxicated and injured victim, alive but partially clothed, outside in a remote area and in freezing weather and then lying about the victim’s whereabouts. When I sent a summary of the case out on my listserv I got a few questions about it and about involuntary manslaughter in general.
In NC, involuntary manslaughter is a common law offense that’s punished as a Class F felony. G.S. 14-18. A key feature of the crime is that it involves an unintentional killing. State v. Fritsch, 351 N.C. 373, 380 (2000). The offense has three elements; a person guilty of this offense:
(2) another living human being
(3) (a) by an unlawful act that does not amount to a felony and is not ordinarily dangerous to life or
(b) by a culpably negligent act or omission.
Elements (1) and (2) are probably well understood by most blog readers. Element (3) merits a little explanation. Elements (3)(a) and (b) are alternative ways of establishing involuntary manslaughter. An example of an act covered by Element (3)(a) is a slap to the head (simple assault, a misdemeanor) of a victim who dies as a result of the contact.
Element (3)(b) covers culpably negligent acts or omissions. I previously discussed criminal negligence in a post here. Briefly, criminal negligence means a carelessness or recklessness showing a thoughtless disregard of consequences or a heedless indifference to the safety and rights of others. By contrast, the malice required for second-degree murder includes commission of an inherently dangerous act in such a reckless and wanton manner as to manifest a mind utterly without regard for human life and social duty and deliberately bent on mischief. Thus, courts have stated that the difference between involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder “is one of the degree of risk and recklessness involved.” State v. Ray, 149 N.C. App. 137, 148 (2002). Note that this element includes both acts and omissions. See, e.g., State v. Phillips, 328 N.C. 1, 19–20 (1991); N.C. Pattern Jury Instructions—Crim. 206.50, nn. 1–2.
For involuntary manslaughter, as with all homicides, the defendant’s act must proximately cause the victim’s death. State v. Bruton, 344 N.C. 381, 393 (1996). A proximate cause is a cause without which the victim’s death would not have occurred; it need not have been the only cause, nor the last or nearest cause of death. Foreseeability is an essential part of proximate cause for involuntary manslaughter. See State v. Cole, 343 N.C. 399, 416 (1996); State v. Fisher, __ N.C. App. __ (Aug. 6, 2013). However, foreseeability doesn’t require that the defendant must have foreseen the exact injury incurred; rather, it means that “in the exercise of reasonable care, the defendant might have foreseen that some injury would result from his or her act or omission, or that consequences of a generally injurious nature might have been expected.” Cole, 343 N.C. at 416 (quotation and citation omitted); Fisher, __ N.C. App. __, slip op. at 16-17.
Now that the basics are out of the way, let’s look at Fisher. In that case, 16-year-old Michael Rogers died after attending a party at the defendant’s home. At the party, Michael was drunk and belligerent. At some point, the defendant “kicked or stomped” Michael’s face. One witness described Michael as “kind of coming in and out of consciousness.” At about 11:00 pm, Michael called his mother. His speech was slurred and he asked his mother and stepfather to come get him. When he called back a few minutes later, he was crying. After determining Michael’s whereabouts, his stepfather arranged to pick him up at a church a short distance from the party. When Michael failed to appear at the church, police, who had been previously contacted, began searching for Michael. Information led officers to the defendant’s house. Although Michael wasn’t there, they found blood at the home. The police asked the defendant’s father to call the defendant to see if he knew where Michael was. The defendant told his father he’d dropped Michael off at the end of a driveway. Officers, concerned for Michael’s safety given that temperatures were below freezing, searched the area but didn’t find him. As it turns out, the defendant didn’t drop Michael at the driveway. Instead, he drove him to a boat access area, fought with him again, and left him, clothed only in jeans, in an isolated parking area at the boat access area. Michael was later found dead nearby. The cause of death was hypothermia.
The defendant was charged with involuntary manslaughter and was convicted. On appeal he argued that there was insufficient evidence that he committed a culpably negligent act or omission that proximately caused Michael to freeze to death. The court, however, had “no difficulty” concluding that the evidence sufficiently established that the defendant’s actions were culpably negligent and that he “might have foreseen that some injury would result from his act or omission, or that consequences of a generally injurious nature might have been expected.” The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his conviction couldn’t stand because his attack on Michael didn’t cause Michael’s death. The court reasoned that the relevant culpably negligent act causing Michael’s death was “putting [him] out of the car in an injured, intoxicated, and under-clothed condition on a very cold night.” The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that it wasn’t reasonably foreseeable that Michael would wander off and die of hypothermia. Noting that foreseeability doesn’t require that the defendant foresee the injury in the exact form in which it occurred, the court concluded: “[I]t is hard to reach any conclusion other than that some injury to [Michael] was foreseeable, if not almost preordained, in light of that decision.”