Criminal Law, Pages 215–219

People v. Jennings

Supreme Court of California, 2010

Facts:

Defendant's son Arthur died shortly after being struck on the head with a shovel by defendant. Defendant and his wife buried their son's body in a dry well, but he body was exhumed and examined. The autopsy revealed that that Arthur had been severely malnourished and only weighed 35 pounds at the time of his death. He had also been severely tortured throughout his life and had severe cuts, burns, and bruises all over his body as a result. Included were a few recent injuries to his head that happened the day of his death. Arthur also had pneumonia.

Finally, Arthur had three drugs in his system. These were sleeping pills, a painkiller, and Valium—all of which are central nervous system depressants. Concluding that the drugs were the final cause of death, the coroner listed them as such, but he also included the other injuries and malnutrition as contributing causes. He testified that if the drugs had not killed him, the emaciation would have very shortly.

Procedural History:

Trial court sentenced defendant to death.

Issue:

Were defendant's acts of torture his son's cause of death if he died from the drugs first?

Rule:

LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 218, Paragraph 4

"'"When the conduct of two or more persons contributes concurrently as the proximate cause of the death, the conduct of each is a proximate cause of the death if that conduct was also a substantial factor contributing to the result. A cause is concurrent if it was operative at the time of the death and acted with another cause to produce the death."'"

Reasoning:

The substantial factor test was designed for cases where in which the but-for rule would allow each defendant to escape responsibility because another's conduct could explain the result as well. While the tests usually give the same result, the substantial factor standard states a clearer rule that more accurately addresses situations with independent concurrent causes of an event.

Here, there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could have concluded that defendant's torture was at least a substantial factor, and thus it was a cause in fact.

Holding:

Yes, defendant's actions were a cause in fact of his son's death. Affirmed.


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