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UNITED STATES v. HAMILTON

March 14, 1960

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Benjamin E. HAMILTON, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

This is a trial of a charge of murder in the second degree. The trial is before the Court without a jury, as the defendant has waived his right to trial by jury.

The indictment avers that on or about December 2, 1959, within the District of Columbia, Benjamin E. Hamilton, with malice aforethought, murdered John W. Slye by means of striking him with his fists and stamping and kicking him with his shod feet. Specifically, the charge is that on the evening of December 2, 1959, the defendant and the deceased were in a fight on Lamont Street near Georgia Avenue in the City of Washington; that the deceased was knocked down in the course of the fight, and that then the defendant jumped on his face and kicked his face, inflicting wounds of which the deceased later died. The defense is that the wounds inflicted by the defendant on the deceased were not the cause of death.

 The evidence in this case establishes the following salient facts. On the afternoon and evening of December 2, 1959, a number of men had gathered in a poolroom on Georgia Avenue near Lamont Street for the purpose of recreation. The defendant and the deceased were in that group. They played several games of pool. They imbibed intoxicating beverages in the rear of the establishment, and they also carried on desultory conversations. There was an exchange of banter between the deceased and the defendant, which developed into an argument, and finally into an acrimonious quarrel. The subject matter of the argument must have been trivial and inconsequential, because the defendant, although he narrated with a great degree of particularity the events of that evening, does not remember what the discussion was about. Both the deceased and the defendant were asked by the person in charge of the poolroom to leave, because it was undesirable that a fight should develop inside. Accordingly, both of them went outside and a fight started on Lamont Street. In the course of the fight, the deceased was knocked down by the defendant. While he was lying on the ground, the defendant apparently exploded in a fit of ungovernable rage and jumped on the face of the deceased and kicked him in the head as well.

 The deceased was taken to the District of Columbia General Hospital, arriving there at 11:30 p.m. No useful purpose would be served by recounting the gory and harrowing details concerning the nature of the injuries sustained by the deceased to his face and head. Suffice it to say that he apparently was in a semi-comatose condition. He was violent and in shock. Blood was coming from his face.

 Promptly upon arrival at the hospital, the deceased came into the competent hands of the Chief Resident of the Neurological Service, who impressed the Court as a completely dedicated and entirely devoted physician. He did everything possible that could be done for his patient. A blood transfusion was given to the deceased, his airways were cleansed, and tubes inserted into his nasal passages and trachea in order to maintain the breathing process. In view of the fact that he was violent, it was necessary to restrain the patient by fastening leather handcuffs on him. The doctor saw the patient several times during the night. In addition, the registered nurse in charge of the ward in which the deceased was placed, saw him at least every half hour or every thirty-five minutes. The deceased was in a room with only one other patient. A licensed practical nurse was constantly in attendance in that room. It is obvious that the patient received incessant and continuous care and treatment at the hands of both the medical and nursing staff of the hospital.

 During the night it became desirable to change the bed clothes of the deceased, because they had become bloody. To accomplish this result, it was necessary to remove the restraints from the patient. They were not put back, because by that time, the patient was no longer violent and was resting better than when he arrived. About 6:30 in the morning, the patient had a convulsion, and immediately thereafter, he himself, with his own hands, pulled out the tubes. At 7:30 a.m., the patient died.

 The Deputy Coroner, who performed the autopsy and who himself is an experienced physician, found the cause of death to be asphyxiation due to aspiration or inhalation of blood caused by severe injuries to the face, including multiple fractures of the nasal bones. The attending physician testified that the cause of death was asphyxia. In other words, the two physicians agree as to the cause of death. It should be said at this point that the purpose of the tubes was to assist in keeping the airways clear in order that the patient might breathe normally. It is claimed by able counsel for the defendant that the immediate cause of death was the fact that the patient pulled out the tubes, and that, therefore, he brought about his own death. This contention requires a consideration of the applicable principles of law.

 It is well established that if a person strikes another and inflicts a blow that may not be mortal in and of itself but thereby starts a chain of causation that leads to death, he is guilty of homicide. This is true even if the deceased contributes to his own death or hastens it by failing to take proper treatment.

 The principles of the common law on this subject are summarized in Hale's Pleas of the Crown, Volume 1, p. 427, in a passage that has been frequently quoted. He says:

 'If a man give another a stroke, which it may be, is not in itself so mortal, but that with good care he might be cured, yet if he die of this wound within a year and a day, it is homicide or murder, as the case is, and so it hath been always ruled.'

 And, again, Hale says:

 'But if a man receives a wound, which is not in itself mortal, but either for want of helpful applications, or neglect thereof, it turns to a gangrene, or a fever, and that gangrene or fever be the immediate cause of his death, yet, this is murder or manslaughter in him that gave the stroke or wound, for that wound, tho it were not the immediate cause of his death, yet, if it were the mediate cause thereof, and the fever or gangrene was the immediate cause of his death, yet the wound was the cause of the gangrene or fever, and so consequently is causa causati.'

 Judicial decisions applying this doctrine are too numerous to require a review. Suffice it to say that these principles have been adopted and applied in the District of Columbia, in Hopkins v. United States, 4 App.D.C. 430, 439. In that case, the defendant had struck the deceased. Several weeks later the deceased died, and the autopsy showed that the death was caused by the blow that had been inflicted by the defendant. It was argued that the defendant was not guilty of homicide, because the deceased had neglected to take medical treatment after he was struck and that his failure to do so either caused or contributed to bringing about his death. This contention was overruled, and it was held that the mere fact that the deceased had neglected to procure proper treatment for the effects of the blow or wound did not relieve the defendant of his responsibility for the homicide.

 Hawkins' Pleas of the Crown, Volume 1, Chapter 31, Section 10, summarizes this principle ...


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