A recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court gave us the first murder conviction for a death caused by an accidental car crash in Massachusetts. The defendant, who had a suspended license, took off when stopped by Brockton police. During the chase he drove at 50 to 60 miles per hour on city streets, ran a red light, and killed a woman.
This in the heartland of the crime of manslaughter: reckless conduct resulting in an unintentional death. Such crashes have been prosecuted as manslaughter in the past. This time the prosecutor had grander plans: a conviction for murder.
Precedent says intentionally running over a person can be sufficient evidence of murder. An intentional crash in an insurance fraud scheme can be murder. The common thread in these cases is intent to cause harm, under circumstances likely to cause death.
On the other hand, a drunken crash in which the victim was dragged to death was manslaughter. Deaths from racing and high speed chases are normally prosecuted as manslaughter. None of those defendants intended to hurt anybody. The same prosecutor had previously charged a DUI death as murder, but the verdict came back manslaughter.
This time his team convinced a jury that the high speed chase was an act which “a reasonable person would have understood created a plain and strong likelihood of death.” Those words are the legal definition of when an accidental death becomes murder.
The facts were mostly undisputed. In court, the defendant admitted to most of his acts but offered an explanation to mitigate his intent. The appeals court was in a good position to review whether the facts of the case could fit into that legal definition.
There was no previous reported decision with similar facts and the appeals court didn’t want to break new ground. When in doubt, the judge’s decision stands. So life in prison for a high speed chase.
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