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Philosophy 22B

A Case of Homicide or Mother's Love?

Whatever else may be true in a given criminal case, what a defendant had in mind at the time that the defendant committed the alleged criminal act matters. It matters to our ascertaining the defendant's guilt or innocence.

Indeed, we might say: "It ought to matter," since our sense of fairness, our sense of whether it is right or just to punish someone for criminal wrongdoing, is intimately bound up not only with our determining whether a person did or did not do the dastardly deed with which he or she is charged, but also whether the person so charged had a guilty mind, a mens rea or a criminal intent.

And we might say the innocence or criminality of the intent in a particular act generally depends on the knowledge or belief of the actor at the time. An honest and reasonable belief in the existence of circumstances which, if true, would make the act for which the defendant is prosecuted innocent, would be a good defense. (People ex rel. Hegeman v. Corrigan (195 N.Y. 1, 12) emphasis added.) But consider the following:

Laurie Sullivan is a Christian Scientist. On February 21, 1996, her four year old daughter, Allie, came down with flu-like symptoms and four days later she developed a stiff neck.

In keeping with the teachings of her religion, Laurie decided to treat her child's illness with prayer rather than medical care. She contacted an accredited Christian Science practitioner who prayed for Allie and visited her on two occasions. Sullivan also engaged a Christian Science nurse who visited Allie on February 27 and again on March 6 and 8.

Christian Science practitioners are approved for listing by the Church in The Christian Science Journal after they have given evidence of their moral character and healing ability. Practitioners devote their full time to healing and spiritual treatment. They have no medical training. According to the Church, their work is a religious vocation, a ministry of spiritual healing in its broadest sense.

A Christian Science nurse also has no medical training, but can provide such practical care as dressing the wounds of those undergoing spiritual treatment.

Allie became progressively worse. Her fever persisted. She lost weight, grew disoriented, and became increasingly irritable. Then on March 9 Allie died of acute meningitis after a period of heavy and irregular breathing.

During the 17 days she lay ill, Allie received no medical treatment. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts alleged that Sullivan's criminal negligence was the cause of Allie's death and charged her with involuntary manslaughter (negligent homicide).

There is no question that Allie died as the result of Laurie Sullivan's actions or, more exactly, her failure to act in a particular way. Had Allie been taken to a hospital during the period of her illness the progress of her disease could have been abated and she, Allie, could have been cured.

But did Laurie Sullivan have the requisite mens rea? Did she not honestly and reasonably believe that she was acting in her daughters best interests? The State, in this instance the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, appears to presume at least that Laurie Sullivan did not act with malicious intent; they have not charged her with murder or even manslaughter but with negligent homicide.

In order to settle, however, the question whether Laurie Sullivan acted negligently, it is necessary to determine the reasonableness of her conduct; hence, to apply some sort of a "reasonable man standard", as it is called, which is not without some small irony, in this instance, since Laurie is not a man, but a mom.

How does Laurie's case, for example, compare to one of the twenty-one-legal puzzlers drawn from Leo Katz book Bad Acts and Guilty Minds. Given their respective belief systems, aren't Laurie and Mohamed in the same boat, as it were, to the extent of the reasonableness of their beliefs in light of their decisions to act as they did?

Love and Death in the Sudan
One dark night, September 11, 1947, Mohamed was going from Bubha village in the Sudan to the village of Meki Beshir to visit his girlfriend. The villages are two miles apart and there is a local superstition that the path between them is haunted. Along the way Mohamed encountered a figure dressed in white. He called out, received no reply and became frightened that the figure was a ghost. He plunged his spear into the figure before him and ran to the village. It turned out that the ghost was Hamid Yahya, a man of 60, who did not hear Mohamed call out because he had a turban wrapped around his ears to keep out the cold. Did Mohamed murder Hamid Yahya?

As Leo Katz points out in his book: "Sudanese courts have thought that someone in Mohamed's position ought to be acquitted on the grounds that he 'honestly' and 'reasonably' believed that Hamid was not a human being but an evil spirit and if murder is to be understood as the 'intentional killing of another human being,' he should be exonerated from criminal liability.

Should Laurie Sullivan be found to have acted negligently despite the fact that she and those around her sincerely believed they were taking appropriate measures to care for her daughter Allie's well-being?

What do you think? Would you prosecute or defend Laurie Sullivan?

Click HERE to read the decision in THE ACTUAL CASE..

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Page last edited: February 1, 2000