- Published: November 14, 2012
According to Section 192 of the California Penal Code, manslaughter is "the unlawful killing of a human being without malice" . There are several kinds of manslaughter recognized in California including voluntary, involuntary and vehicular. Involuntary manslaughter is defined as occurring "in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony; or in the comission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection" . Vehicular manslaughter has to do with manslaughter committed while driving an automobile or other vehicle. Examples include a person running a red light and killing a pedestrian in the process. Intoxication manslaughter (as it is known in Texas) is also an example: a drunk driver kills a family of four. These are clear examples in which a person might not have a clear intent to kill someone but does so in the process of reckless behavior when performing a legal act and/or breaking the law.
But what about freak accidents in which a person is not breaking the law but due to some random unforeseen circumstance kills someone? For example, what if a person has a seizure while on the road and gets into a bad car crash that kills several people? That is in fact what happened in the case of Monica Chavez, who had a seizure on the road, lost control of her car and got into a car crash that killed a family of five . Five years before, Chavez had experienced a ‘seizure-like’ episode and was instructed by an emergency room doctor not to drive until cleared by a neurologist. Therefore, the prosecutors in the case argued that Chavez shouldn’t have ever been on the road in the first place. However, the defense argued since Chavez’s medical condition was unclear - the episode was never really recognized as a seizure by Chavez’s own doctor - she believed that it was OK to keep driving. The verdict? The jury found Chavez not guilty on all five counts of negligent homicide .
Monica Chavez walked away a free woman in the legal sense, but this case prompts further questions. Chavez’s not guilty verdict was likely helped by the fact that she had an unclear medical status and that her last episode had taken place five years earlier. Because she was not warned about driving on the road, it would have been reasonable for her to do so. If this was Chavez’s first epileptic episode the results would have likely been the same - she would be acquitted. But what if she had previous epileptic or fainting episodes over the past few months before the crash but was never told that she shouldn’t drive? And what if she had killed not the entire family but only the children, leaving the parents as survivors? Or if she had killed a child of someone rich and powerful? I would be hard pressed to think that, with the retributive attitude that is pervasive in our legal system, she would be acquitted once again with not even a slap on the wrist. Certainly, some measure of punishment would be demanded by the surivivors.
Related situations include those in which a person has some other kind of mental impairment, temporary or otherwise, and commits a similar crime. An elderly man who is not aware of his severe dementia may get behind the wheel and cause a violent accident out of confusion. How would jurors decide his case? My intuition is that the man would likely be involuntarily committed to a mental institution for the good of society. But would this solution be satisfactory for the prosecution or would jail time be demanded? It appears that the resolution of these kinds of cases is best handled through a case-by-case basis by a jury of peers that takes into account the level of responsibility, awareness, and mens rea that the accused appeared to possess.