Thank You For Submiting Feedback!
The proximate cause test has been specifically rejected in felony murder cases. The rule of lenity requires that where there is any doubt as to the interpretation of a statute upon which a prosecution is based, doubt must be resolved in favor of the accused. Reading the second-degree murder statute in conjunction with the cruelty to juveniles and second-degree cruelty to juveniles statutes creates doubt as to whether lack of supervision was intended by the legislature as a underlying felony sufficient for a second degree murder conviction. An interpretation of the felony murder statute to allow a second-degree murder conviction anytime a parent is criminally negligent in failing to supervise her child and the child dies as a result of some intervening act would be contrary to the rule of lenity and could result in unintended consequences.
On January 20, 2008, around midnight, S.S., age six, was found unconscious from smoke and soot inhalation inside her burning home. The fire originated on the back right burner of the kitchen stove. S.S.'s mother, defendant Satonia Small, had left S.S. and her brother J.D., age seven, asleep unsupervised in the second-story apartment at about 10 p.m. to go drink at the home of her friend, Patrina Gay. When a neighbor called Gay to tell her about the fire, defendant returned home and learned that J.D. had escaped by jumping out of a window, but that S.S. was found inside by firefighters, could not be revived, and was taken to the hospital. Defendant was arrested for cruelty to juveniles. A few days later, S.S. died at the hospital. On March 18, 2008, the grand jury indicted defendant for second degree murder.
Can Small be guilty of second degree murder for leaving her two small children home alone in the middle of the night, during which time a fire broke out and one of her children died in the fire?
The supreme court found that the conviction could not be supported because Small’s criminally negligent act of leaving her young children alone in the middle of the night was not a direct act of killing, but was instead a criminally negligent act of lack of supervision that resulted in her child's death. Small was instead found guilty of the lesser-included offense of negligent homicide. Because there was doubt that the legislature intended to expand second-degree murder to a case such as this one, the supreme court applied the rule of lenity to overturn Small’s conviction for second-degree murder.