Commonwealth v. Carroll, 412 Pa. 525 (1963)

Case Name: Commonwealth v. Carroll
Citation: 412 Pa. 525 (1963)

Facts: Carroll was found guilty of first-degree murder for shooting his wife twice in the head. On appeal, Carroll raised the issue that the evidence could only sustain a conviction of second-degree murder. Some of the facts: Carroll served in the military and was constantly away from home. He took leave to be with his family. His wife had “sadistically” disciplined their children at times. The night of the murder Carroll and his wife argued for hours over a new job opportunity that would require Carroll to be away from home for four nights a week. Carroll’s wife said that she would leave him. There was a loaded gun on their window sill and Carroll shot her when she had fallen asleep.

Defendant’s argument:

  1. There was insufficient time for premeditation in the light Carroll’s good reputation.
  2. The time and place of the crime and the enormous difficulty of removing and concealing the body show an obvious lack of premeditation.
  3. Also,Carroll did not have the requisite premeditation based on a psychiatrist’s opinion. The psychiatrist stated that Carroll was dependant on his wife, he didn’t want her to leave, and that “rage,” “desperation,” and “panic” produced an impulsive automatic reflex type of homicide…as opposed to an intentional premeditated type of homicide.

State’s argument: No time is too short for the necessary premeditation to occur. The space of time between the premeditation and the fatal act is immaterial if the killing was in fact intentional, willful, deliberate and premeditated. Also, we do not have to believe everything a psychiatric says.

Holding: Judgment and sentence affirmed.

Reasoning: Society would be almost completely unprotected from criminals if the law permitted a blind or irresistible impulse or inability to control one’s self, to excuse or justify a murder or to reduce if from first to second degree.

Compare this to State v. Guthrie which provides different interpretation of premeditation


People v. Arzon, 401 NYS 2d 156 (1978)

Case Name: People v. Arzon
Citation: 401 NYS 2d 156

Facts: Arzon was indicted for two counts of murder in the second degree after intentionally setting fire to a couch and a fireman was killed. The fireman was “enveloped by a dense smoke,” which was later discovered to have arisen from another independent fire (an independent intervening cause) that had broken out on the second floor. There was virtually no evidence implicating Arzon in the second fire’s responsibility (although it did originate in arson).

Defendant’s argument: The evidence was insufficient to support Arzon’s murder charge because murder requires a causal link between the underlying crime and the death.

State’s argument: “It is not necessary that the ultimate harm be intended by the actor. It will suffice if it can be said, beyond a reasonable doubt, as indeed it can here be said, that the ultimate harm is something which should have been foreseen as being reasonably related to the acts of the accused.”

Holding: Arzon’s motion to dismiss the murder counts was denied.

Reasoning: The Court looked at foreseeability after it determined that the defendant’s conduct was foreseeable. It was foreseeable that firemen would respond to the situation, thus exposing them, to a life-threatening danger. The fire set by Arzon was an indispensable link in the chain of events that resulted in the death. The first and second fire were concurrent causes to the same result.

Compare to People v. Warner-Lambert Co.

People v. Warner-Lambert Co., 51 N.Y.2d 295 (1980)

Case Name: People v. Warner-Lambert Co.
Citation: 51 N.Y.2d 295 (1980)

Facts: Warner-Lambert Co. and its officers/employees were indicted for second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. A massive explosion at the corporation’s chewing-gum factory killed and injured employees. Warner-Lambert Co. used two potentially explosive substances (magnesium stearate and liquid nitrogen) and had been warned by their insurance carrier that there was an explosion harzard.

Defendant’s argument: There was no hard proof on what actually triggered the explosion but only speculations by experts that it could have been caused by the manufacturing process. Therefore, foreseeability was not established.

State’s argument: The but-for causation is all that is required for the imposition of criminal liability. There was evidence of a foreseen risk of explosion, the defendant’s failure to remove the risk, and an explosion actually occurring.

Holding: Indictment dismissed.

Reasoning: The defendants’ actions must be a sufficiently direct cause of the ensuing death before there can be any imposition of criminal liability. The court focuses on whether there was an actual cause. You must find the “actual cause” before you can establish “foreseeability.”

Compare to People v. Arzon

People v. Acosta, 284 Cal. Rptr. 117 (1991)

Case Name: People v. Acosta
Citation: 284 Cal. Rptr. 117 (1991)

Facts: Two police helicopters crashed, killing three occupants, during a chase of the defendant, Acosta. One of the helicopter pilots violated FAA regulations during the chase.

Defendant’s argument: The helicopter pilot’s FAA violations were a superseding cause of the accident.  Also, it was unforeseeable (highly extraordinary) for a mid-air helicopter crash because the FAA inspector that testified had never heard of one and there was no civil or criminal cases involving a two-helicopter collision.

State’s argument: Acosta’s actions were the actual (“but-for”) cause of the helicopter crash. The proximate cause requirement was fulfilled because it was foreseeable or “a possible consequence which reasonably might have been contemplated.”

Holding: Acosta was the proximate cause but the judgment was reversed because there was insufficient evidence of malice.

Reasoning: The proximate cause requirement was fulfilled because it was foreseeable or “a possible consequence which reasonably might have been contemplated.” That no pursuits have ever before resulted in a helicopter crash or midair collision is more a comment on police flying skill and technology than upon the innate probabilities involved.

Dissent: The intervening negligent conduct (of the helicopter pilot) and the risk of harm were not foreseeable; therefore, the law does not assign blame. The dissent then quoted Cardozo in Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co (1928) and stated that the helicopters were not in the “zone of danger.” (Dissent is incorrect because the trier of fact also looks to see if there is a sufficient relationship that the law is justified in imposing liability)

People v. Evans, 85 Misc. 2d 1088 (1975)

Case Name: People v. Evans
Citation: 85 Misc. 2d 1088 (1975)

Facts: Evans used psychological techniques on a vulnerable college girl. The testimony showed that Evans was a predator and that the girl was naïve and gullible. When Evans had the girl alone in his apartment he said “I could kill you. I could rape you. I could hurt you physically.” The girl was frightened but the sexual intercourse was seemingly consensual and there was no showing of force.

Issue: Whether we should view the controlling state of mind from the point of view of the person who hears the words and interprets them as a threat or the state of mind of the person who utters such words.

Defendant’s argument: Evan’s words meant that the girl was foolish but does not show that he would have used force if the girl did not submit. Seduction is not a crime.

State’s argument: Evan’s words were intended for the girl to do what he said or else he would use force.

Holding: Not guilty because the court cannot find forcible compulsion or threat beyond a reasonable doubt.

Reasoning: The controlling state of mind should be from the person who utters them because, this being a criminal trial, the criminal intent of the defendant must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant did not intend a threat, then there is not the necessary criminal intent to establish culpability.

State in the Interest of M.T.S., 129 N.J. 422 (1992)

Case Name: State in the Interest of M.T.S.
Citation: 129 N.J. 422 (1992)

Facts: A 17 year old boy was convicted of second-degree sexual assault of a 15 year old girl. The statute  stated “a person who commits an act of sexual penetration using physical force or coercion is guilty of second-degree sexual assault.” There was discrepancy between the testimonies.

Issue: Whether the element of “physical force” is met simply by an act of non-consensual penetration involving no more force than necessary to accomplish that result.

Defendant’s argument: Physical force means force used to overcome lack of consent. Requires the application of some amount of force in addition to the act of penetration.

State’s argument: Physical force entails any amount of sexual touching brought about involuntarily. Sexual penetration coupled with a lack of consent satisfies the elements of the statute.

Holding: Appellate court reversed and conviction reinstated.

Reasoning: The court discussed that the legislature’s concept of sexual assault was parallel to the law of assault and battery – “any unauthorized touching of another.” In other words, the court reads “nonconsent” into the statute. The defendant has to have consent, “freely given.” The physical force requirement acts only to “qualify the nature and character of the sexual penetration.”

State v. Rusk, 289 Md. 230 (1981)

Case Name: State v. Rusk
Citation: 289 Md. 230 (1981)

Facts: Rusk was convicted of second degree rape. The prosecuting witness’ testimony and the defendant’s testimony were quite different. The jury convicted Rusk but the conviction was reversed by the Court of Special Appeals which concluded that there was insufficient evidence of Rusk’s guilt to permit the case to go to the jury.

Issue: Whether the defendant had the requisite “force or threat of force.”

Defendant’s argument: The sex was consensual and Rusk did not do anything to “force” the girl to have sex with him. The prosecuting witness’ testimony stating, “The way he looked;” is not enough to show force.

State’s argument: The girl feared Rusk and although it may have been unreasonable, there was enough evidence (with particular focus on the actual force placed on the girl’s neck) to convict the defendant. Furthermore, the jury believed the girl not Rusk and the appellate court cannot substitute its own judgment.

Holding: Convicted reinstated. The Court of Special Appeals substituted its own view of the evidence for that of the judge and jury. (However, the CSA actually reversed on the basis that the case should not have gone to the jury.)

Reasoning: The vast majority of jurisdictions have required that the victim’s fear be reasonably grounded in order to obviate the need for either proof of actual force on the part of the assailant or physical resistance on the part of the victim.

Dissent: A fact finder can only look to see if the victim’s fear is reasonably grounded after the court determines that the defendant’s conduct under the circumstances was reasonably calculated to give rise to a fear on her part to the extent that she was unable to resist. The actual force on the girl’s neck (if it did occur) came after they were already lying naked in bed. It is hard to tell this from just seduction, she never resisted and never described what “the look” was that the defendant gave her. Also, the defendant made no response to the girl’s question “If I do what you want, will you let me go without killing me?” (The dissent did not seem to believe the girl’s testimony.)



Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 (1991)

Case Name: Cheek v. United States
Citation: 498 U.S. 192 (1991)

Facts: Cheek was convicted of willfully failing to file a federal income tax return for a number of years. His defense was that he sincerely believed that under the tax laws he owed no taxes and that the tax laws were unconstitutional. Cheek received this information from seminars and his own study. The jury could not decide because they were divided on whether Cheek honestly and reasonably believed that he was not required to pay income tax. The trial judge responded that “an honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense and does not negate willfulness” and that the information Cheek received was “not objectively reasonable.” The jury then convicted Cheek.

Defendant’s argument: The trial judge erred in instructing the jury that only an “objectively reasonable” misunderstanding of the law negates the statutory willfulness requirement.

State’s argument: Mistake about the law is not a defense to criminal liability.

Holding: It was not error for the judge to instruct the jury not to consider Cheek’s claims that the tax laws were unconstitutional; however, it was error for the court to instruct the jury that Cheek’s beliefs should not be considered by the jury in determining whether Cheek acted willfully.

Reasoning: Because of the complexity of the tax laws, the Court has interpreted the term “willfully” as carving out an exception to the traditional rule and requires specific intent.

People v. Marrero, 69 N.Y. 2d 382

Case Name: People v. Marrero
Citation: 69 N.Y. 2d 382

Facts: Marrero, a federal corrections officer, was arrested for unlicensed possession of a loaded handgun. The statute exempted “peace officers” which included “corrections officers of any state correctional facility or of any penal correctional institution.” After a successful pretrial motion to dismiss, the Appellate Division reinstated the indictment, holding that Marrero was not a “peace officer.” Marrero was then tried and convicted before a jury after the trial court rejected his request for a jury instruction that it would be a good defense if he reasonably believed that the statutory exemption for peace officers applied to him as a federal correctional officer.

Issue: Whether the defendant’s personal misreading or misunderstanding of a statute may excuse criminal conduct in the circumstances of this case.

Defendant’s argument:  The jury should have received an instruction about his reasonable belief that the statutory exemption applied to him was a good defense.

State’s argument: The common law has clearly established that “mistake of law” does not relieve a defendant of criminal liability.

Holding: Conviction upheld.

Reasoning: In addition to the common law view, if Marrero’s argument was accepted, “the exception would swallow the rule. Mistakes about the law would be encouraged…there would be an infinite number of mistake of law defenses.” The crime only required general intent.

Dissent: The majority adopts an Utilitarian view. The criminal justice system is supposed to punish blameworthiness or “choosing freely to do wrong.” The defendant acted innocently and with any intent to do wrong and should not be punished. Furthermore, the dissent disagreed with the majority’s construction of the penal statute.

Regina v. Prince, L.R. 2 Cr. Cas. Res. 154 (1875)

Case Name: Regina v. Prince
Citation: L.R. 2 Cr. Cas. Res. 154 (1875)

Facts: Defendant was convicted of taking an unmarried girl under 16 years out of the possession and against the will of her father (a misdemeanor). The jury found that the girl had told the defendant she was 18, the defendant honestly believed the statement, and his belief was reasonable.

Defendant’s argument: The statute has a requirement read into it that the prosecution must prove that the defendant believed the girl he had taken was over 16.

State’s argument: The statute does not require this proof. The act of taking a girl out is wrong in and of itself – that is the mens rea. It does not matter that he thought the girl was older. Just like it would not matter whether he knew or did not know whether she is under 16. However, it would have mattered if he did not know the girl was in the custody of her father.

Holding: Conviction affirmed.

Reasoning: The court interpreted the statute to require a strict liability application. The Common Law does not allow defenses to strict liability.

Dissent: The defendant had reasonable ground for believing what the girl told him and had what she said been true, he would not have done the act (no mens rea). “a mistake of facts, on reasonable grounds…is an excuse” (if, had the facts been true, he would not have been guilty) that is implied in every criminal charge and enactment in England.