Brief Fact Summary. This appeal actually consists of two cases with similar facts consolidated for appeal. In separate prosecutions, the Defendants were each convicted of manslaughter after each Defendant shot his victim in the head, and in each case the victim was placed on a respirator. After each victim’s brain had irreversibly ceased to function, the victim was declared dead, and artificial respiration was terminated.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Death may be deemed to occur when the entire brain’s function has irreversibly ceased.
When the Legislature has failed to assign definition to a statutory term, the courts will generally construe that term according to its ordinary and accepted meaning as it was understood at the time.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Did the respective trial courts fail to adequately instruct the juries as to what constitutes a person’s death?
Held. No. Convictions affirmed.
Death has traditionally been defined as a cessation of cardio-respiratory function. This had always served to adequately define death since the lungs and heart could not function without brain function. However, with advances in medical technology, cardio-respiratory function may continue with the aid of devices and drugs long after a person is “brain dead.”
Other states began to define death as the absence of respiratory and cardiac functions or absence of brain function. Hence, here the Court of Appeals of New York held that, given traditional notions of death and the common law conception of death, using brain-based criteria for determining death is appropriate. Therefore, in the present cases, there was sufficient evidence for the juries to find that each Defendant caused his victim’s death.
Discussion. This case follows the trend among U.S. courts that death can be either a cessation of cardiorespiratory function or a cessation of brain function. Generally, the courts will utilized a two tier approach where death is determined first by the traditional method of cessation of cardiorespiratory function, but it may be determined by cessation of brain function if the victim is being kept alive by medical technology.