Brackett v. Peters

The Facts

Defendant, a prisoner in state prison was convicted of felony murder.  At the time of the crime, defendant was 21 and had raped and severely beaten an 85 year old widow, who he had previously done yard work for.  Her hospital records show a broken arm, a broken rib, and extensive bruising.  While at the hospital, defendant became depressed and refused to eat or be fed and became progressively weaker.  Her physical injuries were healing when she was transferred to a nursing home, but her mental status deteriorated as she continued her resistance to food.  “Her doctor ordered a nasal gastric feeding tube for her but the tube could not be inserted, in part because facial injuries inflicted by Bracket made insertion of the tube too painful.”  Defendant died ten days after admission to the nursing home while a nurse was feeding her through a syringe.  The autopsy revealed that she died from a large amount of food being stuck in her trachea, from which she asphyxiated.

Procedural History

Defendant convicted and appeals, “arguing that no rational finder of fact could have found that he had caused the death of his victim.”  District judge denied the appeal.


“… an act is a cause of an event if two conditions are satisfied: (1) the event would not have occurred without the act; (2) the act made the event more likely.”

The Issue

Whether a defendant’s asphyxiation after being fed through a syringe constitutes sufficient causation of death after a beating and rape, such that defendant can be convicted of felony murder.

The Holding

Yes, conviction upheld.  Every event has multiple causes.  For instance, the victim’s age was a partial cause of her death.  She was also senile, which is a common cause of depression, which is commonly associated with loss of appetite, which caused her weakened state, which caused her eventual death.  Were any of these conditions absent, she probably would not have died and each made her death more likely.  However, the existence of other causes that satisfy the rule does not absolve the defendant of criminal liability.

It is sufficient that the murderer’s actions be one of the causes that led to death.  A rational fact finder could find that she would not have died in the absence of the rape and assault and that the rape and assault made the event of her death more likely.  It is unlikely that she would have died regardless of his assault and rape, which speaks to prong (2) of causation rule.  It would not be a good argument that had the defendant not raped and assaulted, she would have entered the hospital and died one month later.

The defendant’s depression is not a supervening act which absolves him of culpability.  It is no more a supervening act than any other vulnerability of the victim.  Even if it can be argued that she committed suicide by not eating, her depression could be demonstrated as a proximate cause of this, meeting both prongs of causation.  The defendant must take the victim as he finds her.  This is similar to taunting a schizophrenic, which leads to death or injury.  The taunter would be found criminally liable because his acts caused the resulting condition. “… a criminal assailant is punishable as a first-degree murderer no matter how feeble the spark of life that his blow extinguished.”

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