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Noakes v. Virginia

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant ran a day-care from her home. She had been taking care of a fifteen-month-old who stood and cried in the crib while the other children slept. In an effort to get him to lay down and fall asleep, she put a cardboard cover and a thirty-three-pound dog crate on the crib. She returned three hours later to find the baby unconscious with his head and neck wedged between the cover and the crib. After a bench trial, the court convicted Defendant of involuntary manslaughter. The court found that Defendant had acted recklessly and indifferently. The court of appeals affirmed, upholding the trial court’s conclusion as reasonable and noting that Defendant could have foreseen the danger in placing a heavy dog crate across the crib of a baby who often stood and cried. Defendant appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, claiming that Defendant did not act with criminal negligence and could not have foreseen the actions taken by Colassaco in the crib.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    An involuntary-manslaughter conviction will be upheld if a defendant should have known that particular conduct was likely to cause substantial harm.

    Facts.

    Elizabeth Noakes (defendant) ran a day-care service from her home. For three weeks, Defendant had been watching Noah Colassaco (Colassaco), a 15-month-old child who had difficulty getting to sleep. While other children slept, Colassaco stood in the crib and cried. One day, Defendant put Colassaco in the crib for a nap in an upstairs-loft bedroom. Colassaco had been standing and crying for about a half hour when Defendant devised a plan: if Defendant could get Colassaco into a sitting or lying position, Colassaco would fall asleep. Defendant placed a cardboard cover on the crib to prevent Colassaco from standing upright. Defendant next placed a dog crate weighing over 33 pounds on top of the cardboard. Defendant shook the crib a few times to see if the cover was stable. Satisfied that the cover was secure, Defendant left the loft at 1:00 p.m. Three hours later, Defendant returned to the loft and found Colassaco unconscious in the crib. Colassaco was standing, with his head and neck wedged between the cover and the crib. Defendant and emergency-medical personnel could not revive Colassaco.

    Issue.

    Whether an involuntary-manslaughter conviction will be upheld if a defendant should have known that particular conduct was likely to cause substantial harm.

    Held.

    Yes. Defendant’s conviction is affirmed. An involuntary-manslaughter conviction will be upheld if a defendant should have known that particular conduct was likely to cause substantial harm.

    Discussion.

    A person may be guilty of involuntary manslaughter for an accidental killing that occurs when that person improperly performs a lawful act. In other words, involuntary manslaughter may be based on negligence—not just negligence, but gross, or criminal, negligence. A person who acts with criminal negligence has little or no regard for the safety of others and knows or should know that the conduct contemplated is likely to result in injury. In this case, Defendant, although well aware of Colassaco’s sleeping habits, placed a dog crate weighing more than 33 pounds atop a makeshift, cardboard crib cover. Defendant knew or should have known that these deliberate actions were likely to cause harm to any child, much less to a 15-month-old baby with a propensity for standing in the crib crying instead of sleeping. Defendant obviously questioned the safety of the contraption; Defendant shook the crib to see if the crate would fall. After placing the cover atop Colassaco’s crib, Defendant did not check on Colassaco until three hours later. Defendant’s actions showed a reckless disregard for Colassaco’s life under circumstances making it probable that injury would occur.


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