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State v. Williams

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendants, husband and wife, were convicted for manslaughter for failure to seek medical treatment for the wife’s infant son.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A person is guilty of statutory manslaughter if the death of a dependent minor child is caused by a failure to exercise “ordinary caution” in obtaining medical care.

    Facts. The Defendant husband, Walter Williams, was married to the Defendant wife, Bernice Williams. The defendant wife had two children to a previous relationship, the younger of the two, William Joseph Tabafunda, was the victim here. Both Defendants became aware that William was ill during the period September 1, 1968 to September 12, 1968, but they did not realize how sick he really was. They thought that he had a toothache, an affliction that certainly does not seem to be dangerous to life. They gave the baby aspirin but did not take him to a doctor for fear that the welfare department would take the baby away. The Defendants knew that medical help was available because of prior experience. William died after about two weeks.

    Issue. Do the findings support the conclusion that the Defendants are guilty of manslaughter?

    Held. Yes.
    Parents have a duty to provide medical care for a dependent minor child. Said duty is breached when the parents fail to exercise “ordinary caution,” which is defined as the type of caution a man of reasonable prudence exercises under the same or similar conditions.

    If a parent negligently causes the death of the victim, he or she is guilty of statutory manslaughter. If the duty to furnish care was not activated until after it was too late to save the life of the child, failure to furnish medical care cannot proximately cause the death of the child.

    Here, the testimony showed that the victim developed an infection of the mouth from an abscessed tooth that became gangrenous. The child was unable to eat because of this and therefore became malnourished. This lowered the child’s immunity, allowing him to develop pneumonia, which caused his death. The condition was estimated to have lasted about two weeks, and the medical testimony indicated that seeking treatment during the last week would have been fruitless in saving the victim’s life.

    Therefore, while the Defendants noticed the illness about two weeks before death, neither Defendant sought medical treatment during the critical, weeklong period when the baby’s life could have been saved. They claimed to be afraid that the welfare department would take the baby away, but there was evidence that the defendant husband had taken the baby to a doctor before. Hence, there was sufficient evidence to prove statutory manslaughter.


    Discussion. A parent must exercise “ordinary caution” in seeking medical treatment for a dependent minor child.


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