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People v. Head

Court of Appeals of Michigan

March 27, 2018

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
CHRISTOPHER DURAN HEAD, Defendant-Appellant.

          Wayne Circuit Court LC No. 15-010037-01-FC

          Before: Gleicher, P.J., and Boonstra and Tukel, JJ.

          Per Curiam.

         Defendant appeals as of right his jury trial convictions of involuntary manslaughter, MCL 750.321, second-degree child abuse, MCL 750.136b(3), felon in possession of a firearm, MCL 750.224f, possession of a short-barreled shotgun, MCL 750.224b, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony-firearm), MCL 750.227b. Defendant was sentenced, as a fourth-habitual offender, MCL 769.12, to 25 to 50 years' imprisonment for the involuntary manslaughter conviction, 10 to 50 years' imprisonment for the second-degree child abuse conviction, 5 to 50 years' imprisonment each for the felon in possession of a firearm and possession of a short-barreled shotgun convictions, and two years' imprisonment for the felony-firearm conviction. We affirm.

         This case arises out of the fatal shooting of defendant's nine-year-old son, DH, by defendant's 10-year-old daughter, TH, on November 9, 2015, in defendant's home. The involuntary manslaughter charge against defendant was premised on his gross negligence in storing a loaded, short-barreled shotgun in a readily accessible location in his home where he allowed his children to play while unsupervised by an adult.

         I. SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE

         Defendant first argues that there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree child abuse. We disagree.

         To determine whether there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction, this Court reviews the evidence de novo, in the light most favorable to the prosecutor, to determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the offense were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. People v Odom, 276 Mich.App. 407, 418; 740 N.W.2d 557 (2007).

         "This Court will not interfere with the trier of fact's role of determining the weight of the evidence or the credibility of witnesses." People v Kanaan, 278 Mich.App. 594, 619; 751 N.W.2d 57 (2008). "All conflicts in the evidence must be resolved in favor of the prosecution." Id. "Circumstantial evidence and reasonable inferences arising therefrom may constitute proof of the elements of the crime." People v Bennett, 290 Mich.App. 465, 472; 802 N.W.2d 627 (2010).

         "Manslaughter is murder without malice." People v Mendoza, 468 Mich. 527, 534; 664 N.W.2d 685 (2003). "The common law recognizes two forms of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary." Id. at 535. Involuntary manslaughter is a catch-all crime that encompasses all homicides that do not constitute murder, voluntary manslaughter, or a justified or excused homicide. People v Holtschlag, 471 Mich. 1, 7; 684 N.W.2d 730 (2004). The requisite mental state for the type of involuntary manslaughter charged in this case is gross negligence. See id. at 16-17. Gross negligence means wantonness and disregard of the consequences that may ensue. People v Feezel, 486 Mich. 184, 195; 783 N.W.2d 67 (2010). Wantonness exists when the defendant is aware of the risks but indifferent to the results; it constitutes a higher degree of culpability than recklessness. Id. at 196. To prove gross negligence, a prosecutor must show:

(1) Knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to another.
(2) Ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand.
(3) The omission [i.e., failure] to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous to another. [People v McCoy, 223 Mich.App. 500, 503; 566 N.W.2d 667 (1997) (citation omitted).]

         Causation is an element of involuntary manslaughter. People v Tims, 449 Mich. 83, 94; 534 N.W.2d 675 (1995). Causation in the criminal context requires proof of factual causation and proximate causation. Feezel, 486 Mich. at 194. "Factual causation exists if a finder of fact determines that 'but for' defendant's conduct the result would not have occurred." Id. at 194-195. Proximate causation, on the other hand,

is a legal construct designed to prevent criminal liability from attaching when the result of the defendant's conduct is viewed as too remote or unnatural. If the finder of fact determines that an intervening cause supersedes a defendant's conduct such that the causal link between the defendant's conduct and the victim's injury was broken, proximate cause is lacking and criminal liability cannot be imposed. Whether an intervening cause supersedes a defendant's conduct is a question of reasonable foreseeability. [Id. at 195 (quotation marks and citations omitted).]

         Defendant argues that there was insufficient evidence of gross negligence in connection with his involuntary manslaughter conviction. We disagree. The evidence demonstrates that defendant kept an illegal, loaded, short-barreled shotgun in an unlocked closet in his bedroom. He allowed his children to spend time in that bedroom while unsupervised. In particular, defendant allowed his nine-year-old son DH to play a violent video game in that bedroom while unsupervised. Defendant's 10-year-old daughter TH likewise had unsupervised access to defendant's bedroom and entered that bedroom while DH was playing the video game. TH then suggested that she and DH act out the video game. She retrieved the loaded shotgun from the closet and accidentally fired the gun, which led to DH's death. A rational trier of fact could find that defendant acted with gross negligence in allowing his children to have unsupervised access to a loaded shotgun. Defendant knew the situation required the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury. It goes without saying that a loaded shotgun poses a danger to young children who are not being monitored by an adult. Defendant had the ability to avoid the harm by ordinary care and diligence. Setting aside the fact that it was illegal for him to possess the weapon, as he was a convicted felon, and the fact that the weapon itself was an illegal short-barreled shotgun, defendant could have taken other actions-short of giving up his illegal possession of the gun-to avoid the harm, such as removing the ammunition from the weapon or placing it in a secure location where his children would not have had access to it. By allowing his young children to play unsupervised in a room where he kept a loaded, readily accessible shotgun, defendant failed to use the requisite care and diligence; he failed to avert a threatened danger where the result was likely to prove disastrous to his children. Therefore, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence of gross negligence.

         Defendant's challenge to the causation element is equally devoid of merit. It is beyond question that factual causation exists. But for defendant keeping a loaded shotgun in an unlocked closet of the bedroom where the children were playing without supervision, TH could not have obtained the weapon and accidentally shot DH. Proximate causation likewise exists. The result of defendant's conduct was not remote or unnatural. A child dying from an accidental gunshot is exactly the type of harm that is to be expected from defendant's conduct of keeping a loaded weapon readily accessible in a room where young children were playing. Nor does TH's action of obtaining the weapon and accidentally firing it constitute an intervening cause that superseded defendant's conduct. Rather, TH's actions were reasonably foreseeable. Given that young children fail to appreciate the risks posed by loaded firearms in the same way that adults should, it is foreseeable that a child could accidentally fire a loaded weapon that was readily accessible in a room where the child was playing without supervision. Although some testimony suggested that defendant told the children not to touch the weapon or to go into the closet and that TH was ordinarily an obedient ...


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