Court parses definitions of manslaughter.


Byline: Dan Heilman

Can a conviction for manslaughter be reached if the underlying offense was merely fifth-degree assault? The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled last week that in some cases it can be.

The court heard an appeal from David Stay, who was convicted in Mille Lacs County District Court of first-degree manslaughter following a fight in 2016.

On the night in question, Stay was drinking and socializing at a bar and restaurant. Another patron, identified only as D.T., confronted Stay after closing time because Stay had been behaving aggressively toward a friend of his. After much arguing and shoving, Stay punched D.T. once in the face.

D.T. hit the ground and became unresponsive, breathing shallowly. He was taken by ambulance to a nearby emergency room and later air-lifted to a hospital, but died later that night. A neurologist reported that D.T. died from blunt force trauma to the brain, which, along with his blood alcohol level, inhibited the ability of his heart and lungs to function properly.

After the assault but before D.T. died, police located Stay near his fishing cabin. He admitted punching D.T. He was initially charged with first-degree assault, first-degree-manslaughter, and fifth-degree-assault and the case was tried to a jury. At trial, Stay emphasized that he did not intend to kill D.T. and that it was unforeseeable that D.T. would die from one punch.

During his trial, Stay requested that the court instruct the jury that first-degree manslaughter requires that death or great bodily harm be reasonably foreseeable as a result of fifth-degree assault as a predicate offense. The District Court declined.

In its instructions to the jury on the elements of first-degree manslaughter, the District Court noted that under Minnesota law, when assault in the fifth degree causes the death of another, the perpetrator is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree. The court also told the jury that it's not necessary for the state to prove any intent to kill anyone in such a case.

The jury found Stay guilty of first-degree manslaughter and fifth-degree assault, but found him not guilty of first-degree assault. The District Court sentenced him to 51 months in prison for first-degree manslaughter and did not sentence appellant for fifth-degree assault.

Question of foreseeability

In hearing Stay's appeal, the appellate court needed to weigh the propriety of the District Court's instructions, and to reconcile the District Court's acceptance...

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