State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Washington, 1971.


  • Walter and Bernice Williams, defendants, were husband and wife (only wife had high school education).
  • Their 17-month child became sick, which they believed to be a toothache, and he died about 2 weeks later.
  • Child had swelling of the cheeks, blueness of the mouth, fussy between 9/1 and 9/5.
  • Doctor testified that the child died because an infection started in his mouth and cheeks, eventually becoming gangrenous.  This, accompanied by the child’s inability to eat, brought about malnutrition, lowering the child’s resistance, eventually causing pneumonia, which caused the death.
  • Testimony said that Sept 5 medical assistance would not have helped.
  • Williams’ said they were waiting for the swelling to go down and that they were afraid the welfare department would take the child away from them.
  • Evidence shows the Williams’ did not understand the significance or seriousness of the baby’s symptoms.

Procedural History:  Williams’ found guilty of manslaughter for negligently not taking their child to a doctor.  They appeal.

Issue:  Does the action of not getting medical attention for their child constitute a charge of manslaughter?

Holding: Yes.  Williams’ were found to have ordinary negligence in not getting medical attention for their sick child.  Normal ordinary negligence causing the death of another constitutes statutory manslaughter.

Reasoning:  Gross negligence is needed in the case of involuntary manslaughter.  Under WA state laws, manslaughter is committed even though the death of the victim is the proximate result of only simple or ordinary negligence.  Ordinary negligence describes a failure to exercise the ‘ordinary caution’ necessary for a defense of excusable homicide.

Court found that ordinary caution, the caution that a man of reasonable prudence would exercise, was not used by the defendants.  Failure to obtain medical attention for the child was ordinary or simple negligence.

Disposition:  Affirmed.


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