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Criminal Law – Involuntary Manslaughter

Colleen is an attorney in the United States, and a solicitor on the roll in England and Wales.


The Lowest Rung on The Ladder of Murder

If compelled by an offense to enter the hierarchy of killings, involuntary manslaughter is the optimal choice. Unlike most crimes, it does not, at least in common law terms, have a separate definition. It contains the elements of homicide, “the unlawful killing of one human being by another.” In theory, it differs from murder in that it lacks the needed guilty mind, legally dubbed mens rea.

Still, despite this seeming exit route, a finding of involuntary manslaughter hinges upon a judicial finding as to the perpetrator’s awareness of the harm his act or omission might cause. Such a determination involves the objective standard of the reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances. Still, there is flexibility here. Some U.S. jurisdictions appraise the reasonable person in terms of the knowledge and understanding expected to be possessed by the defendant.

Various Perspectives

Some U.S. jurisdictions choose either the objective or subjective tests, utilizing whichever standard seems best suited to the case at bar. Other jurisdictions combine aspects of both these tests, thereby allowing more latitude in a verdict geared towards an individual defendant and the facts and circumstances surrounding his crime. These free-thinking areas shape and mould their verdicts to the specific framework of the defendant.

From the 1944 case of Commonwealth v. Welansky: “If a defendant is so stupid or so heedless … that he did not recognize the great danger, he cannot escape the imputation of wanton or reckless conduct, if an ordinary, normal man under the same circumstances would have realized the gravity of the danger. A man may be reckless within the meaning of the law, even though he himself thought he was careful.”

An Early Case: A Dogfight As The Cause of a Duel

Although duelling has long been deemed a crime, for centuries it was the primary means for a gentleman to defend his honour or that of his lady, if treated or spoken of with a lack of respect. Indeed, a failure to do so was viewed as demeaning, not only to the man himself, but to the class to which breeding and birth had consigned him. Thus, even a clash between two dogs could result in the death/s of one or both owners, if the words by one owner rendered such combat essential to the dignity of the other.

Quote by Saint-Exupery

Quote by Saint-Exupery

Facts Causing The Fracas

In 1803, this case which implied involuntary manslaughter was brought before the UK judiciary. During these times, arrest, trial, verdict and sentencing were far more immediate than they have become in our era. Thus, James McNamara was charged, on April 20th, for the April 6th killing, during the same year, of Robert Montgomery by discharging a pistol loaded with a metal ball.

It is undisputed that, on this early spring day, James McNamara and Colonel Robert Montgomery were riding their horses in the Hyde Park area of London, both accompanied by Newfoundland dogs. When the two men rode fairly close to each other, their dogs engaged in a struggle. So ferocious was this fight that the body of the dog belonging to Montgomery was torn and injured. The consequent quarrel between the two men resulted in Montgomery’s challenging McNamara to a duel.

The Horrific Consequence

Two hours later, these men, forced to be enemies by a few excoriating words, met at an arranged, secluded location. Each man brought an officer of the armed forces in order to ensure adherence to the exact rules of duelling protocol. Hence, each duelist, armed with a loaded pistol, walked fifteen paces away from the other. Having done so, each shot at his opponent. Montgomery fell to the ground and died of his wound. While McNamara also collapsed, his wound was such that he was able to survive without any lingering injury.


Adequate Justification

During the subsequent trial, McNamara explained to the court that Montgomery had said "If you are offended by my words, you know where to find me." These words laid down a challenge which, as a gentleman, he had no choice but to accept: “Hence, I did not enter into the challenge with any anger or passion. Indeed I held no resentment towards Montgomery. It would be insanity to have put my life in danger for a passion caused by dogs fighting.

I could well have overlooked the call to challenge, but unfortunately the world would not. I entered the challenge with no desire to kill my opponent or for myself to be in such danger. I took up the challenge in hope of receiving satisfaction. If I had not done so, I would have been tarnished with the opinion of the world to become an object of mockery.


To gain "satisfaction", was to restore one's honour by proving a readiness to risk one's life for it.

Had I not accepted his challenge to gain satisfaction, word would soon have spread and been embellished and my honour would have been lost. It would not have been possible for me as an officer to lead men into honourable battle when I had sought safety from defending my own honour. I would be considered to be a disgrace.”

Chivalry And Honour

The crux of this case is that the charge was not for murder. The inquest of the day; the equivalent of today’s Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) did not consider killing within a duel to constitute murder. However they did require clarification on the point of passion. After all Gentlemen and officers of the day were expected to conduct their contentions with the utmost chivalry.

In Response To This Argument, The Judge Directed The Jury

“Gentlemen, the crime of manslaughter consists of killing a man under sudden provocation. We are not here to examine that provocation, although we know there had been a sudden altercation between them. However, there was a considerable amount of time between that quarrel and the time of the duel. Indeed, if the defendant had been charged with murder, he would surely be guilty, for the law has no sentiment for honour between men.

Your task here is to decide whether there was time between the cause and the actions of a duel for the passions to have diminished to such an extent as to be redundant.”

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The jury found McNamara Not Guilty.

  • Our next case discusses the depraved heart: second degree murder.

The Case of State v. Davidson 1999

Canine carnage

Delightful as it can be to cuddle a puppy, romp about or ramble with a dog, enjoy the security of protection, then nurturing such a pet as it ages, it is vital to never quite erase from one’s mind the fact a dog is an animal which, however carefully bred and conscientiously trained, remains capable of extreme brutality. Not surprisingly, when joined in a pack, especially one including fighting dogs such as Rottweiler’s, the jungle instinct inherent within any animal is all too often ignited.

The following 1999 Kansas case of State V. Davidson addresses the issue as to whether the defendant’s conduct indicated an extreme indifference to the value of human life, shown by her failure to release her dogs at appropriate intervals.

In its prosecution, the state urged the court to find the defendant guilty of second degree or depraved heart murder. In order to succeed in this claim, the state needed to convince the court that, although not premeditated, the defendant’s recklessness was so extreme as to manifest a serious form of murder. Conversely, defendant Sabine Davidson contended that, if guilty of any crime, the highest level it could reach should not exceed the threshold of involuntary manslaughter.

One Free Bite

Although the Davidsons’ dogs were confined, they were not far from the local school bus stop. A number of U.S. jurisdictions have developed a doctrine by which a dog-owner is assumed to have been unaware of a dog’s violent tendencies until the animal has demonstrated them via an attack. Once this bite has been documented, the owner is viewed as being on notice. Hence, any further damage caused by this dog is likely to subject its owner to prosecution.

Although the dogs had not bitten anyone at the time of the victim’s death, she had been warned several times that her dogs, let loose, had alarmed neighbours. Even when enclosed by a fence, they growled a good deal and struck passers-by as frantic to free themselves from their confines. Arguably, such grievances provided the essence underlying the principle of the “One free bite” law.

A Young Boy’s Death

On the morning of April 24th, 1997, at around 7-15, the two Wilson brothers, Chris aged 11 and Tramell 9, waited at the school bus stop as usual. When Tramell got on the bus alone, carrying two book bags, the driver asked if his brother Chris would be joining him. When Tramell said something the driver could not understand, he turned back and signalled for Chris to hurry. At that point, the driver saw three of Ms. Davidson’s dogs (Rottweiler’s) battling over what one of the children on the bus said looked like a rag doll. Tragically, the conflict was centred upon Chris’ maimed body.

Fortunately, the boy’s death seems to have come about quickly after the dogs’ onslaught. Later, an autopsy showed that injuries to his carotid artery and oesophagus caused his death. So deep did one dog’s back teeth penetrate his skin that indentations were visible on the back of the neck of the child’s corpse. All the vertebrae in his neck had also been broken.

Once the police ascertained the source of these injuries, a sheriff went to the Davidson's home, where he arrested the couple, both of whom were responsible for the restraint of their dogs. Neither of the Davidson's made the slightest effort to protest against their incarceration. Nor did they voice a trace of distress upon hearing of Chris Wilson’s death.

When informed a boy had been killed by her dogs, Ms. Davidson said it should have been Chris or Trammel Wilson, as they often tormented her dogs while standing outside their enclosure.

The Issue to be Resolved

As touched upon earlier, the state construed Ms. Davidson’s actions as meeting the statutory definition of second degree murder: the killing of a human being unintentionally, but under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. Ms. Davidson contended the state failed to establish the scienter (knowledge), vital to a finding of this type of murder. Despite her argument that her conduct constituted no more than involuntary manslaughter, the state prevailed.

The reasoning of the court in finding Ms. Davidson guilty of this charge was based upon the pivotal legal concept of foresee-ability. Given the known propensities of Rottweiler’s to cause serious harm, warnings regarding her failure to properly train or socialize them, the time at which they were released from their enclosure and Ms. Davidson’s having taken a sleeping pill shortly thereafter, indicated a recklessness tantamount to indifference to the value of human life equivalent to depraved heart murder.

She was sentenced to 12 years and 2 months imprisonment.

People of The State of California v. Conrad Robert Murray 2011

The ultimate question in the early death of performer Michael Jackson is contained in one of his most prized songs: Why? The repeated “Why Why” resonates through the facts of his passing, not so much in a literal sense as in a primal analysis. Why did someone with so much zest and ability within him become such a desperate drug addict as to jeopardize his life by a plea for one final dose of his elixir?

Ease of Access to Drugs

For at least half a century, the fifty years Michael Jackson spent on this earth, the ease with which celebrities can become drug addicts has been well-recognized. Those who seek the favour of the famous: wannabes, hangers-on, even doctors, have garnered wealth and prestige by pandering to the demands of the famous.

This is not to imply that all doctors, lured into furthering availability of prescription drugs are financial bloodhounds. Undoubtedly, some become convinced they are providing these drugs for a limited time, and for a legitimate purpose. Ultimately, Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s personal physician for a number of years, was deemed responsible for Jackson’s death via a prescribed drug overdose.

Almost as soon as Jackson’s death on November 25th 2009 was announced, its cause was sourced to a drug overdose. Undoubtedly, amphetamines were needed to provide a man of 50 to dance with the verve and vigour he had revelled in at age 25; still, he felt impelled to do so. Jackson’s recourse to pharmaceuticals as a means of relaxation is said to have begun when he was prescribed painkillers after various operations involving cosmetic surgery.

At some point, despite having spent time in a drug rehab centre, he believed himself to require powerful medications in order to gain solace from the tension-fraught schedule of his days into the comfort of slumber. In time, having built a bond of trust with Dr. Conrad Murray, Jackson convinced this physician of his need for a sedative so potent as to be administered during surgical operations.

A set-up in his bedroom at home, including intravenous tubes and lines to connect them, became a part of his ongoing regimen. Naturally, his staff complied and stayed silent. Questioning any employer comprises the most immediate route towards dismissal.

What is Propofol?

Propofol is a milky white liquid often referred to as “milk of amnesia” which is a powerful sedative. Although it can be used as a sleep aid; such is its potency that it is normally taken intravenously under medical supervision and used as an anaesthetic in surgical procedures.

Death of A Demi-God

Although Jackson’s eccentricities and idiosyncratic ways had been recognized, more-or-less globally for some decades, his death at 50 shocked and saddened much of America and parts of the world beyond. Hence, queries quickly arose as to what had caused his demise at such a comparatively young age.

Once denoted as Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray became the chief suspect, to the extent any individual can be accused of an inadvertent killing. A trial ensued, involving lasting testimony far too complex and clinical for our purposes here.

In essence, it was determined that propofol, the major component in Jackson’s death, is meant to be administered only during those surgical procedures where an anaesthesiologist is present to monitor the patient’s breathing and pulse rate. When asked if its prescription as a sleeping medication was “egregious” and “unconscionable”, one physician confirmed that it was.

In his defence, Murray asserted that he often spent as many as 6 nights a week with Jackson, ensuring the safety of his medication in-take. Jackson often pleaded for propofol as the only means of making him sleep. Given his schedule, he insisted, he could only sleep when permitted by time. Thus, when he did have a chance at a few hours’ rest, the deepest sleep he could reach proved essential.

The Deadly Dose

While conceding having prescribed propofol to Jackson on the night of his death, Murray contended that Jackson must have ingested a number of other sedatives, causing the propofol to become lethal. During his last phone conversation with Jackson, Murray stated that when he asked if he was OK, Jackson replied, in a drowsy tone, “I’m asleep.” In fact, he was dying.

Full Summing Up And Sentencing of Conrad Murray

The Judicial Decision

After a trial lasting twenty-four days, the jury returned a verdict of guilt for involuntary manslaughter. Murray was sentenced to four years imprisonment, but released in less than two. This early release indicates a judicial belief that Murray was by no means a Rasputin, unearthing vulnerabilities in order to benefit by them.

Instead, Murray's release implies a sense that, had he not complied with Jackson’s requests, this celebrity would, in time, have found a doctor who would have done so. Jackson’s long-term addictions, rampant despite the highest level of rehab, seemed all but certain to have ended his life prematurely. In addition, if, as was shown via autopsy, Jackson mixed the propofol with a number of other sedatives, Murray was not responsible for the toxic effects of this combination.

Returning to the question of why, the root of Jackson’s elusive quest for joy and contentment which seems to have fuelled his addictions will probably never be answered.

Joel Steinberg Case: The Killing of Lisa Launders “Steinberg”

During the late 1980s, America grew aghast as the details of the killing of a six-year-old girl became more explicit. At first, it was believed that Lisa Steinberg, the adopted daughter of Attorney Joel Steinberg and his partner, publishing assistant Hedda Nussbaum, died as a result of their beating, compounded by their neglect in seeking medical aid for her injuries. As Steinberg’s trial progressed, the truth became even grimmer.

A Connoisseur of Loopholes

Born in 1941, Joel Steinberg graduated from Fordham University in 1962. Then, having graduated from law school, in 1970 he was exempted from taking the New York bar exam, due to his having done military service in Vietnam. Indeed, so detested had America’s involvement in this war become that the government offered incentives for accepting conscription or voluntary enlistment.

While all state bar exams often daunt the most stellar students, the New York version is among the most taxing. Even Albert Einstein failed it on his first attempt. Thus, no law school graduate can be blamed for avoiding its gauntlet. Still, this evasion may have instilled a pattern for Steinberg’s seeming belief in his ability to transcend life’s hurdles.

Hedda Nussbaum - Joel Steinberg And Illegally Adopted Daughter (Deceased 4th Nov 1987) Elizabeth Lisa Launders


Her Daily Inspiration

Having met in 1975, in 1976 Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum became live-in partners. It is not clear when exactly Steinberg began beating Nussbaum. A highly intelligent woman working at the respected Random House Publishing Company, Nussbaum specialized in children’s books. During this time, she herself authored a book called Plants Do Amazing Things, dedicating it partly to Joel Steinberg who she said was “my daily inspiration.”

Perhaps this tribute was based on the fact that, in order to justify his abuse, Steinberg claimed Nussbaum possessed the potential to become a truly superb human being. His battering, he claimed, was essential to transform her into someone worthy of his lasting affection. At first, Nussbaum did all she could, via meticulous application of make-up, to hide Steinberg’s bruising from colleagues at work. In time, however, she ceased to conceal, seeming to flaunt her wounds as tokens of love from a passionate wooer.

A Child Is Taken

It will probably never be clear why Steinberg found it more convenient to gain children by unsavory means than to father them in the conventional way. The facts are that he acquired possession of Elizabeth Lisa Launders by agreeing to a legal fee of half a million dollars to place the child with an Irish Catholic family. Instead, he retained the child without adoption, dubbed “Lisa Steinberg”, in his own home, where both he and Nussbaum were Jewish.

A Loving Dad To His “Daughter”

A further pretext for Steinberg’s abuse of Nussbaum lay in what he called her failure to “engage with” Lisa. Exactly what this meant he never made clear. Conversely, Steinberg’s major way of engaging with Lisa seems to have consisted of hitting her. Thus, on the night of November 1, 1987, he struck Lisa on the head with such force the little girl lost consciousness. He then left her on the bathroom floor for 10 hours, with only Nussbaum to shield her from death.

Wild on crack cocaine during the beating, Steinberg left and returned to their home a number of times for quick fixes. Reassured by Steinberg, Nussbaum believed there was no need for alarm as to Lisa’s condition. By then, she had become convinced in his powers to heal the most lethal injuries.

An End To Enthrallment

Despite her faith in Steinberg’s powers, at 6 A.M. on the morning of November 2nd, when Lisa seemed to have stop breathing, Nussbaum urged Steinberg to call the emergency number for medical assistance. He then phoned for an ambulance. Lisa died three days later on November 4th. Following Steinberg’s arrest, Nussbaum knew herself to be in serious jeopardy. At that point, the couple turned from lovers to foes.

Hedda Nussbaum and Joel Steinberg arrested 2nd November 1987

Hedda Nussbaum and Joel Steinberg arrested 2nd November 1987

The Trial of Joel Steinberg

An autopsy soon revealed Lisa’s cause of death as due to a blow on the head, and the failure of emergency help to be called in time to prevent the child’s demise from her injury. Shortly thereafter, in January 1987, the New York State Supreme Court brought Joel Steinberg to justice.

Hedda Nussbaum would also have been tried, had she not plea bargained by agreeing to testify against Steinberg.

Having been examined physically, it was clear Nussbaum suffered from malnutrition, anemia, broken bones, and a number of chronic infections which would have rendered her incapable of causing the child much physical harm. Still, she faced the hurdle of justifying how she could have stayed in a house with a beaten and bleeding child without phoning for medical aid.

Her attorney was able to persuade the court that the couple’s relationship had grown sadomasochistic, and that Nussbaum suffered from battered Woman Syndrome. Engulfed in Steinberg's sense of self-aggrandizement, arguably she had become a tool in his power. In addition, she was willing to testify against Steinberg, thereby becoming the state’s chief witness.

The grave of Elizabeth Lisa Launders killed by Joel Steinberg

The grave of Elizabeth Lisa Launders killed by Joel Steinberg

The Sentence

The court handed down the strongest sentence allowed in the given circumstances: a maximum of 25 years for first degree manslaughter. After 16 years on June 30, 2004, he was released on the basis of good behavior in prison. At no time, even before a parole board, did he voice the slightest remorse.

Since then, he has moved to Harlem in New York, where he worked in the construction business. At this writing, Nussbaum lives in New Jersey, has written a book on domestic violence, and gives talks to various women’s groups regarding the nature and characteristics of an abusive relationship.


As we have seen, the seemingly straightforward charge of involuntary manslaughter can take diverse forms. If a defendant has committed an unlawful or dangerous act, resulting in the death of another human being, or a defendant’s recklessness was so extreme that someone died as a consequence, he may be charged and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Although it has been stated that a mens rea, (guilty mind) is not needed for a finding of involuntary manslaughter, this cannot be wholly true with any form of murder.

A Tragic Magic Trick

Let us say a magician, as part of his act, “catches a bullet” between his teeth. In truth, the bullet is already hidden within the magician’s mouth. His assistant loads a gun with blanks, then invites a member of the audience to “shoot” the Magician.

What if such a member, having watched the act, shoots a bullet from his own gun, then shouts, “Catch this one too, then.” If the magician, wounded, falls and dies, was the challenger guilty of involuntary manslaughter? Much will depend upon what the court believes the shooter’s motive to have been. It has been well understood for some while that spectators at such a show want to believe in the validity of what they are seeing.

Perhaps a childhood wish for elves, dragons and wild enchantments lingers in our souls, glimpsed, at times, in our adulthood. Here, if the killer’s plan had been to show the magician to be a con artist or charlatan, involuntary manslaughter would have been the mildest charge he could have expected.

What if, however, he genuinely believed in the ruse, and wished only to participate, maybe requesting his bullet be given back to keep as a souvenir-an heirloom even? The justice system, if it prosecutes him, will be forced to do its utmost to determine what motive fuelled this act of braggadocio. Whether or not it succeeds, it will be largely a question of guesswork.

© 2014 Colleen Swan


Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 23, 2015:

You're welcome Colleen. I agree with you there, that he didn't have to die.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on April 23, 2015:

Hi Kristen, Thank you for your encouraging thoughts. It was a shame about Michael Jackson in that he still had so much ability.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 22, 2015:

Great hub, Colleen. I've never heard of those criminal law cases, except for the Michael Jackson one. Voted up for useful!

Ann Carr from SW England on January 05, 2014:

Another fascinating insight into the law and its cases. The human mind can cause both terrible and wonderful things; it's frightening to see the results which can ensue.

Once again, your explanation makes for easy reading of a complicated issue. Happy New Year to you! Ann

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on January 04, 2014:

Thank you, Colleen.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on January 04, 2014:

Thanks Gilbert. I shared your last article on my G+

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on January 03, 2014:

Nice work, Colleen. I posted a comment on the facebook page.

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