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One cannot escape culpability because factors other than his act contributed to the death of another or hastened it, such as where he was suffering from some fatal malady or had a predisposed physical condition, as being in feeble health, without which a blow or other wound would not have been fatal. Under most modern decisions, death caused or accomplished through fright, fear, or nervous shock may form a basis for criminal responsibility. On the other hand, it is held that to warrant a conviction of homicide, the act of the accused must be the proximate cause of death and that if there was an intervening cause for which the accused was not responsible and but for which death would not have occurred, he is blameless.
Robert Hubbard was at home on furlough from the army in August, 1945. He was arrested for being drunk in a public place and taken before the County Judge of Laurel County. Being too drunk to be tried, he was ordered to jail, but refused to go peaceably. R. W. Dyche, the jailer, and Newman, a deputy, took hold of him. The prisoner resisted and struck Newman. In the scuffle both fell to the floor and Hubbard lay on his back "kicking at" anybody or anything within reach. Dyche had hold of him. He said, "I have done all I can; you will have to help me," or "Somebody is going to have to take my place; I am done." Judge Boggs took hold of the prisoner and persuaded him to get up; but he continued to resist as he was being taken to jail by Newman and another person. Dyche followed them out of the courthouse. He put his hand over his heart and sat down. In a few minutes he got down on the ground where he "rolled and tumbled" until he died within a half hour. Hubbard never struck Dyche at all, and he received no physical injury. He had been suffering for some time with a serious condition of the heart, and had remarked to a friend several hours before that he was feeling bad. Three doctors testified that his death was due to acute dilatation of the heart, but that the physical exercise and excitement was calculated to accelerate his death. Hubbard has been adjudged guilty of killing him and sentenced to two years' imprisonment on a charge of voluntary manslaughter.
Was Hubbard’s voluntary manslaughter conviction proper?
The court stated that Hubbard could be guilty of no higher degree of homicide than involuntary manslaughter, although the court did not give an instruction on that offense, because Dyche’s death was charged to have resulted from Hubbard’s commission of a misdemeanor not of a character to endanger life. To warrant a conviction for homicide, the act of the accused had to be the proximate cause of death. If there was an intervening cause for which the accused was not responsible and but for which death would not have occurred, the accused was blameless. There was no criminal liability unless death or serious bodily harm was the probable and natural consequence of an indirect, unlawful act of the accused. Hubbard’s misdemeanor had to be regarded as too remote a cause. The failure of the jailer's diseased heart was the cause of his death; the trial court should have directed an acquittal.