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Johnson v. State

Supreme Court of Alaska

January 22, 2010

Frank R. JOHNSON, Petitioner,
v.
STATE of Alaska, Respondent.

Sharon Barr, Assistant Public Defender, Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for Petitioner.

Timothy W. Terrell, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, Talis J. Colberg, Attorney General, Juneau, for Respondent.

Before: FABE, Chief Justice, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, WINFREE, and CHRISTEN, Justices.

OPINION

WINFREE, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

We are asked in this petition for hearing to clarify the standard of foreseeability for a criminal prosecution based on reckless conduct.

A defendant is responsible for the natural consequences of his or her act or failure to act. But the defendant's liability for harm to another is not limitless because natural consequences are those a reasonable person could have foreseen. If the trier of fact finds a general type of harm was foreseeable, then the trier of fact must determine whether the actual harm was within the scope of risk hazarded by the defendant's conduct. The trier of fact need not find the exact manner in which the actual harm occurred was foreseeable,

Page 106

but the exact manner of harm must not be too remote a possibility or liability cannot be imposed.

Because in this case the court of appeals applied a foreseeability standard that did not expressly include a consideration of remoteness, we vacate its decision and remand for further proceedings consistent with the standard articulated in this opinion.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

The court of appeals succinctly set forth the underlying facts of this case as follows:

The defendant in this case, Frank R. Johnson, was the father of an infant girl, Christina Takak. Christina died after prolonged abuse by her mother, Heather Takak (Johnson's long-time partner). According to the testimony presented at the trial in this case, Takak starved Christina to the point where the infant had essentially no fat left in her body, and her muscles had atrophied. One witness testified that Christina looked like a famine victim at the time of her death. The jury found, however, that the immediate cause of Christina's death was Takak's act of intentionally dropping Christina on the floor head-first, causing trauma to her skull and brain. This physical assault (which preceded Christina's death by one to three days) caused Christina's brain to hemorrhage and swell inside her skull, leading to her death.[[1]]

The State prosecuted Johnson for second-degree murder premised on a parent's duty to protect his child from physical harm.[2] The state medical examiner testified at Johnson's trial that both head trauma and starvation caused Christina's death. He also testified that the head trauma would have killed Christina even if she had not been starved, but either had the capacity to kill her. Johnson's forensic pathologist testified that although Christina was profoundly starved and would likely have died, the sole cause of Christina's death was the head trauma and starvation neither caused nor contributed to her death. Johnson argued to the jury that even if it found he had been aware that Takak was starving Christina, he had no reason to be aware of a particular danger that Takak might assault Christina.

The jury acquitted Johnson of second-degree murder but convicted him of manslaughter. The jury also returned a special verdict form showing unanimous agreement that the cause of Christina's death was head trauma, not starvation or a combination of the two.

Johnson filed a motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing that even if the State proved he recklessly disregarded the risk that Takak was starving Christina, the jury's special verdict established that starvation did not contribute to Christina's death. The trial court treated the motion as a request for a new trial, vacated the verdict, and ordered a new trial:

The court has no doubt that evidence supports a jury verdict that the defendant knew that allowing Christina to remain with Heather Takak would result in her death by starvation or that he was aware of and consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that allowing the baby to remain with Heather Takak would result in starvation. The court further believes that the evidence supports a jury verdict of manslaughter, if starvation was a substantial factor in bringing about the death of Christina Johnson. The testimony of [the state medical examiner] was clear on that issue. ...

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