State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Washington, 1971.

4 Wash.App. 908, 484 P.2d 1167.

Dressler, pp. 277-280


Facts: The parents of a child who died of an infection they failed to treat were charged with manslaughter based on their negligence.  They were convicted and they appealed.


Issue: Under Washington law, do the facts prove the elements of manslaughter?


Rule: In Washington, manslaughter is any homicide that is not murder but is neither justifiable nor excusable and is committed with simple (as opposed to gross) negligence.  Furthermore, homicide is excusable if it is committed accidentally while “doing any lawful act by lawful means, with ordinary caution”.


Analysis: The court finds that the defendants were put on notice that the baby was sick before it was too late to save the baby by taking him to a doctor.  The court does not accept the excuse of the defendants that they thought if they took the baby to a doctor he would be taken away by the welfare department.  Therefore, the court finds there was enough evidence to find that the parents committed simple negligence.


Conclusion: The court upheld the manslaughter conviction.


Notes and Questions


1.     They would be guilty of negligent homicide, because the Model Penal Code says that any homicide committed with the mens rea of negligence falls under this offense.

2.     If we’re not going to punish character in general, then we’re rejecting using the threat of criminal punishment to change people’s moral makeup.  If this is the rule we’re using, we should only punish acts, and we shouldn’t bother giving people any incentives to change their character.


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