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State v. Hernandez

    Brief Fact Summary. Defendant Hernandez was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after he caused the death of a passenger in a vehicle that was run off the road by Defendant’s van while Defendant was in a drunken state.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A defendant need not be aware of the risk to others from his conduct to be guilty of manslaughter.

    Facts. The victim, Cecil Barrymore, was killed in a motor vehicle accident caused by the Defendant. The victim and Kevin Butcher were passengers in a truck driven by Robert Butcher. Robert Butcher first noticed the Defendant’s van as it rounded a curve traveling in the opposite direction as the truck containing the three men. The Defendant’s van slid into the wrong lane of travel, and two of its wheels were off the ground. Butcher applied the brakes and drove his truck as far to the right as he could. The Defendant’s van returned to its own lane but then came back into Butcher’s lane and collided with the truck. The truck was knocked into a ditch running alongside the roadway, and the van overturned in an adjacent field. The Defendant was thrown from the van. The Defendant told a person on the scene rendering aid that he had drunk “a 12-pack and some whiskey.” The victim was pronounced dead at the scene. At trial, evidence, in the form of stickers and pins attached to the visor of th
    e defendant’s van containing “drinking slogans” was introduced to show that the defendant knew that imbibing alcohol negatively affected his driving skills and that he approved of excessive drinking. The defendant appealed his conviction of involuntary manslaughter on the ground that the admitted evidence was irrelevant to the charges against him.

    Issue. Did the trial court improperly admit irrelevant evidence against the Defendant?

    Held. Yes. Conviction reversed.
    In order for evidence to be relevant, and therefore admissible, it must tend to support or establish a fact or issue between the parties. To prove manslaughter, the state must show that the Defendant acted with criminal negligence, which caused the death of another. The state does not have a burden to prove, however, that the Defendant was aware that his conduct was inherently risky to others. Hence, any evidence tending to prove that the defendant knew that imbibing alcohol would distort his sense of reality and his driving skills is irrelevant and inadmissible. The trial court improperly permitted the state to introduce the “drinking slogans” into evidence.

    Reputation or character testimony is not admissible unless the defendant puts his own reputation at issue. The defendant did not put his reputation in issue here. Hence, the trial court improperly admitted evidence of “drinking slogans.”

    Dissent. Since the Missouri manslaughter statute is derived from the Model Penal Code (MPC), it is instructive to look at the explanatory notes to the MPC, which imply that the Defendant must have been aware of the risk of harm to others. Hence, three of the slogans, namely, “Reality is for those who can’t stay drunk,” “The more I drink, the better you look,” and “I only drink to make other people more interesting,” should be admissible, as they speak to the Defendant’s awareness of alcohol’s effect on him.

    Discussion. A person is criminally negligent when he “fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that certain circumstances exist or a result will follow, and such failure constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation.” Hence, proof that the defendant knew of alcohol’s effect on him was irrelevant, and any evidence of such is inadmissible.


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