Aug 03, 2017 Beware throwing that punch if you do not want a manslaughter conviction
As banal and even irritating as the admonition sounded when I was in public school, a person can avoid plenty of aggravation and heartache by always keeping his hands to himself, unless needed for self defense. George Ellis Brown, Jr., will be haunted for the rest of his life for not having followed that admonition, as he now stands convicted of involuntary manslaughter as a result of throwing a man to the ground so violently that his skull cracked so loud that is sounded like a coconut being split open. Brown v. Virginia, ___ Va. App. ___ (Aug. 1, 2017).
Brown was employed by a pharmacy to help keep order in the customer prescription pickup line to address such behavior as cutting in line. Granted, such a job is one that likely is not appreciated by most customers and might get tedious at best, unless of course one looks at the job as an opportunity to greet and engage with the customers, who include those who are grateful for the services provided by the pharmacists and their staff.
One of Brown’s job duties was in fact to keep his hands to himself. Clearly, cutting in line is uncouth and can cause commotion, but it will not dismantle modern civilization.
What did Brown do, then, when irritated by a customer with a heart condition who cut in line when his name was called, after having expressed mounting impatience waiting for the filling of his prescription? Brown acted aggressively from the get go, when diffusing the situation is usually the best initial approach to tense situations that do not present any physical threat.
Brown ended up putting the customer in a bear hug, and throwing the customer to the ground in a manner that prevented the sextugenarian victim from using his arms to break the fall. The customer’s head hit the hard floor so violently that other customers heard a crack during this horrifying situation that in quick order led to the victim’s death.
Brown initially told police that the victim had lunged at Brown first, but changed that assertion once police told him the incident was on videotape.
As a criminal defense lawyer knowing that I work on the side of the angels, I still come across human behavior (and yes, I only have available the allegations against Brown that are in his appellate opinion, which allegations are not automatically accurate) that is so exasperating that I want to scream. However, that is tempered by his sentence sounding particularly firm, at ten years suspending eight years incarceration.
Brown selected a non-jury trial. Had he not, if a jury convicted Brown, the jury likely would have thrown the sentencing book at him. The only sympathetic aspect of his sentencing may have been that he likely never in a million years realized nor intended that his violent action might lead to the customer’s death.
However, the customer’s death did result, and Virginia has a low standard for proving common law involuntary manslaughter — for which Brown was convicted. Involuntary manslaughter occurs when death results from reckless behavior, meaning “conduct evidencing either a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others,” with knowledge that the defendant’s acts created a substantial risk of harm to the victim. That is a low standard to qualify for involuntary manslaughter, but that is the standard nonetheless.
I have defended a slew of assault defendants since over a quarter century ago, and plenty have exerted substantially more force on their victims than Brown did on his. How lucky those clients were that their victims did not suffer death as a result, or else they could have found themselves charged with manslaughter as well.