MANSLAUGHTER IN THE FIRST DEGREE
BY MISDEMEANOR-MANSLAUGHTER - ELEMENTS
No person may be convicted of manslaughter in the first degree unless the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt each element of the crime. These elements are:
First, the death of a human;
Second, occurring as a direct result of an act or event which happened in the commission of a misdemeanor;
Third, caused by [the defendant(s)]/[a person engaged with the defendant(s)] while in the commission of the misdemeanor;
Fourth, the elements of the [Specify Underlying Misdemeanor] defendant(s) is/are alleged to have been in the commission of are as follows:
[Give Elements of Underlying Misdemeanor]
Statutory Authority: 21 O.S. 2011, § 711(1).
Notes on Use
Accomplice and/or coconspirator instructions should be given where appropriate.
Scope of the misdemeanor-manslaughter rule. The misdemeanor-manslaughter rule, like the felony-murder rule, requires no particular mental state on the part of the defendant except that which is required for conviction of the underlying misdemeanor.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals held in State v. Ceasar, 2010 OK CR 15, 237 P.3d 792, that any misdemeanor can be used as the underlying offense in a misdemeanor manslaughter charge. In Ceasar, the Court overruled the magistrate’s sustaining of a demurrer for first degree manslaughter in the commission of a misdemeanor, where the predicate misdemeanor was for driving after revocation of a driver's license. The Court held that because 21 O.S. 2001, § 711(1) "does not distinguish among the type or category of misdemeanor which can be used as the underlying offense in a misdemeanor manslaughter charge," any misdemeanor would satisfy the initial step in charging misdemeanor manslaughter. 2010 OK CR 15, ¶ 10, 237 P.3d at 794.
One final statutory demarcation concerning the scope of the misdemeanor-manslaughter statute is warranted. The vehicular or negligent homicide statute enacted in 1961, section 11-903 of Title 47, provides that a person who causes the death of another through operation of a vehicle in "reckless disregard of the safety of others" is culpable for negligent homicide. The Court has held that, where the underlying misdemeanor perpetrated by the defendant is an offense of the reckless driving ilk, the negligent-homicide statute applies to the exclusion of the first-degree manslaughter law. Short v. State, 1977 OK CR 44, 560 P.2d 219. However, where the misdemeanor offense is driving while intoxicated, in violation of section 11-901 of Title 47, such conduct removes a consequent homicide from the definition of "negligent homicide" and renders a conviction for manslaughter in the first degree appropriate. Lomahaitewa v. State, 1978 OK CR 67, 581 P.2d 43; White v. State, 1971 OK CR 141, 483 P.2d 751; Ritchie v. Raines, 1997 OK CR 101, 374 P.2d 772.
Proximate Cause. The broad range of conduct defined as violative of the criminal law, and thus constituting misdemeanor offenses, renders the misdemeanor-manslaughter rule, on its face, one of virtually unlimited application, appropriate to any instance where death ensues while the defendant is engaged in perpetration of a misdemeanor. For example, convictions for manslaughter in the first degree have been found appropriate where the defendant's underlying unlawful act was carrying a gun, Welborn v. State, 70 Okl. Cr. 97, 105 P.2d 187 (1940), or disciplining a child to the extent of committing assault and battery, Campbell v. State, 1976 OK CR 32, 546 P.2d 276.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, has circumscribed applicability of the doctrine by requiring that the offense the defendant was engaged in when death ensued must be the "direct and proximate cause" of the homicide. Logan v. State, 42 Okl. Cr. 294, 298, 275 P. 657, 658 (1929). In Logan, the seminal case, the Court affirmed the defendant's conviction for manslaughter in the first degree where the homicide with which the defendant was charged ensued while the defendant was driving at an unlawful rate of speed and in an intoxicated state. The Court reasoned that "[c]ertainly, the commission of a misdemeanor in no way connected with the death is not what is meant by the law." Id. at 295, 275 P. at 658. Examples cited by the Court where proximate cause would be absent were situations where the defendant unintentionally and otherwise without culpability struck and killed a person while driving without a vehicle tag, or struck and killed a person who had intentionally thrust himself into the path of the defendant's automobile while the defendant was driving at an excessive rate of speed.
This restriction, that the offense relied upon as a predicate for misdemeanor-manslaughter must directly and proximately cause the homicide, has been reiterated and adhered to in subsequent cases. Ruth v. State, 1978 OK CR 79, 581 P.2d 919; Nickelberry v. State, 1974 OK CR 81, 521 P.2d 879; Lime v. State, 1973 OK CR 178, 508 P.2d 710; Gallaway v. State, 1971 OK CR 507, 492 P.2d 368; Chase v. State, 1963 OK CR 56, 382 P.2d 457. However, these cases also specify that omission of a proximate-cause instruction in a case where death is clearly the result of the defendant's unlawful act is not reversible error.
The Court has also stated that the instruction given need not be in any particular language, so long as it adequately informs the jurors of the necessity of finding a causal link. The Commission is reluctant to insert the term "proximate" or "legal" in the instruction, and has substituted "direct result" as a description of the necessary causal connection.
In State v. Ceasar, 2010 OK CR 15, 237 P.3d 792, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overruled the magistrate’s sustaining of a demurrer for first degree manslaughter in the commission of a misdemeanor, where the predicate misdemeanor was for driving after revocation of a driver’s license. The Court decided that the misdemeanor for driving after revocation of a driver’s license satisfied the proximate cause requirement for application of the misdemeanor-manslaughter rule, because the defendant’s driving after revocation of his driver’s license was a substantial factor in bringing about the victim’s death. Id. ¶ 13, 237 P.3d at 795.
It should be observed that the Court's treatment of this question of causation and inherent nature of the offense is the converse of its resolution of the question in the felony-murder context, where, as discussed in the Committee Comments pertaining to first- and second-degree felony-murder, the Court has determined that the inherently or potentially dangerous nature of the underlying felony must be established, but that proximate cause need not be demonstrated. Wade v. State, 1978 OK CR 77, 581 P.2d 914.
"In the commission of." Although the Commission has recommended that the trial judge instruct the jurors regarding the breadth of the "in the commission of" language as embodied in the felony-murder statutes, it is the Commission's position that the proximate cause requirement, emphasized by use of the term "direct result" in the instruction, renders such an instruction superfluous in the misdemeanor-manslaughter context. The Commission has found no Oklahoma cases addressing this precise point.
Accomplice responsibility. Oklahoma precedent clearly provides that a person engaged in the commission of an inherently or potentially dangerous felony is culpable for murder where death ensues, regardless of whether he or a cofelon actually performs the slaying. Prior to the enactment of the current murder statutes, the Court of Criminal Appeals indicated that a felony-murder conviction might be sustained even where the slaying was performed by a police officer while the defendant was perpetrating a felony. See Johnson v. State, 1963 OK CR 91, 386 P.2d 336. The issue raised in the misdemeanor-manslaughter context is whether a similar result of accomplice responsibility obtains. The Commission has concluded that it does. The common law foundations for the misdemeanor-manslaughter rule justify accomplice responsibility for homicide. The historical limitation of the doctrine's applicability to situations where the underlying offense is malum in se was intended to punish the defendant for homicide whenever conduct in which he engages poses a peril to the lives and safety of others. R. Perkins, Criminal Law 73-79 (2d ed. 1969).
However, strict application of the proximate-cause requirement, which is the prevailing rule in Oklahoma, makes it difficult to conjure up a hypothetical situation where the defendant's conduct would be deemed the direct and proximate cause of the consequent death unless the defendant himself performed the slaying.