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State v. McVay

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, McVay (Defendant), was charged as accessory before the fact in a larger manslaughter prosecution arising out of an explosion that occurred on a Newport-bound steamer which killed several passengers.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A defendant may be charged as accessory before the fact even in manslaughter crimes where the resulting harm is not intentional.

    Facts. The Defendant counseled the captain and engineer of a steamer to continue transporting passengers even though he knew that the boiler on the steamer was unsafe. On the way to Newport, the boiler exploded and several passengers were killed as a result.

    Issue. Can a defendant be held liable as accessory before the fact in a manslaughter prosecution where the resulting harm was unintentional?

    Held. Yes.
    It cannot be broadly stated that premeditation – of the kind contemplated in an accessory before the fact charge – is inconsistent with every charge of manslaughter. There is no reason why, prior to the commission of a manslaughter-type crime, a person may not aid and abet another in the doing of an unlawful act or the doing of a lawful act in a negligent manner. In counseling co-defendants to continue using the steamer for passenger transport despite knowledge that the boiler was unsafe, the Defendant exercised a conscious choice among various courses of conduct. If the facts set for in the indictments are true, a jury could find that the Defendant, fully aware of the danger to human life, counseled the captain and engineer of the ship to take their chances piloting a ship with an unsafe boiler.


    Discussion. The court in this case holds that a defendant may be an accessory before the fact in a crime he has no intention of ever committing. The court reasoned that one could still be involved in the “planning” of an unintentional crime insomuch as one’s own negligence in failing to take charge of a duty was a volitional act with foreseeable harmful consequences.


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