State v. Guess

Decision Date26 May 1998
Docket NumberNo. 15723,15723
Citation715 A.2d 643,244 Conn. 761
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Barry GUESS.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Elizabeth M. Inkster, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant (defendant).

Christopher T. Godialis, Assistant State's Attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael Dearington, State's Attorney, and Elpedio Vitale and Mary H. Lesser, Assistant State's Attorneys, for appellee (State).

Before CALLAHAN, C.J., and BORDEN, BERDON, NORCOTT and KATZ, JJ.

KATZ, Associate Justice.

The sole issue on appeal is whether the term "death," as used in the Penal Code, may be construed to embrace a determination, made according to accepted medical standards, that a person has suffered an irreversible cessation of all brain functions.

The defendant, Barry Guess, was charged with murder in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-8 and 53a-54a(a), 1 and with carrying a pistol without a permit in violation of General Statutes § 29-35. 2 After a trial by jury, he was found guilty of both counts, and was sentenced to an effective term of fifty years incarceration. Thereafter, he appealed to the Appellate Court raising, inter alia, the issue of whether, because the victim's life support systems had been disconnected after he had been shot by the defendant, the evidence presented was insufficient to support a finding of probable cause for the crime of murder. 3 The Appellate Court disagreed, concluding that the proximate cause of the victim's death was the bullet wound he had sustained, and the act of disconnecting the life support systems after the victim had been declared brain dead was a medically reasonable act that neither caused the victim's death nor constituted a sufficient intervening cause so as to negate the defendant's acts as the cause of death. State v. Guess, 44 Conn.App. 790, 800, 692 A.2d 849 (1997).

Thereafter, we granted the defendant's petition for certification as to the following issue: "Did the Appellate Court properly uphold the defendant's conviction of murder when Connecticut has not adopted the Uniform Determination of Death Act?" State v. Guess, 242 Conn. 902, 697 A.2d 688 (1997). As an alternate ground for affirmance the state argued: "[i]f the Appellate Court improperly upheld the defendant's conviction of murder because Connecticut has not adopted the Uniform Determination of ... Death Act, did the Appellate Court properly uphold the conviction of murder because the removal of the life support mechanisms was not a sufficient intervening cause to preclude the defendant's liability for the murder of the victim." We conclude as a matter of common law that death as used in the Penal Code includes an irreversible cessation of the functioning of the brain and, accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The Appellate Court opinion sets forth the pertinent facts. "During the early morning of March 1, 1992, the defendant and two friends, Michael McCrea and Lamont Green, visited a convenience store in their neighborhood in New Haven. While inside the store, they encountered the victim, Melvin McCoy, and his friend, Germaine Young. The defendant knew the victim because the defendant was then dating Mary Streater, who had had a child with the victim.

"The two groups stared at each other in the store without exchanging any words. The victim and Young left the store and got into the victim's car, with the victim in the driver's seat. Before pulling away from the curb, Young noticed the other three men leave the store and cross the street. The defendant and McCrea stayed near the intersection, while Green headed up the street. The victim drove the car toward where the two men were walking. Young saw the defendant begin to pull out of his pocket what Young recognized to be the handle of a black pistol. Young ducked down in the car and yelled to the victim to do the same. Young remained in that position while he heard about fifteen to twenty gun shots. After the shots were over and the car had rolled to a stop, Young looked out of the rear of the car to see two men running away. Young called to the victim, who did not respond. The victim was bleeding from his head.

"Young got out of the car and ran to a nearby house. He asked the resident to call an ambulance. Then Young called the victim's mother and told her that the victim had been shot by the defendant. Young went outside and saw Officer Michael Quinn, whom he knew from his neighborhood. Quinn noticed that Young was frantic and shaking. Young told Quinn, 'They shot Mel. They shot Mel.... Barry did it. Barry did it.' Young also spoke with another police officer, Officer Marcus Pisciotti, at the scene." State v. Guess, supra, 44 Conn.App. at 792-93, 692 A.2d 849.

"Evidence was presented at the probable cause hearing by Joseph Piepmeier, the neurosurgeon at Yale New Haven Hospital who had treated the victim the morning of the shooting. Piepmeier testified that the victim arrived at the hospital at 1:59 a.m. in a coma with a heart rate of forty and no respiratory function. There was no evidence of brain stem function. According to Piepmeier, '[b]rain stem activity or brain stem function deals with the very basic functions of survival such as integration of movement, swallowing, breathing, controlling heart rate and blood vessels, controlling lung function, controlling how your gut works.... [T]he very basic things that physiologically make us work [are] in the brain stem.'

"After the victim was intubated and put on a ventilator and respirator, his heart rate and blood pressure rose. He could not breathe on his own. After a while, there were discussions with the victim's family regarding disconnecting the ventilator or respirator. At about 9:30 a.m., a test was performed to determine if the victim could breathe on his own, and it was determined that he could not. His heart could not beat on its own without life support systems. According to Piepmeier, the victim was brain dead because there was no evidence of any brain activity. He went on to testify that 'any death, any death, regardless of mechanism, involves a cessation of brain activity. Death, in my estimation can only occur one way, one final common pathway, and that is the cessation of brain activity, regardless of what the heart's doing or the kidneys are doing, the lungs are doing, it's immaterial. Death is defined as an event in the brain.' After a question regarding the maintenance of body functions through mechanical means, Piepmeier responded, 'You can be dead and through machines and medication have a beating heart and the machine blowing oxygen into your lungs and taking carbon dioxide away.... [I]t is possible for someone to be dead in a medical definition and to have machines and medications make their heart and lungs perform activities.' He also testified that a doctor could issue a notice of death for a person while life support systems continue in place, although the general practice is to wait until the machines have been disconnected. The victim's parents authorized that the machines be disconnected and the victim was pronounced dead." Id., at 795-96, 692 A.2d 849.

On appeal to the Appellate Court, the defendant argued that, because the legislature had not adopted the Uniform Determination of Death Act, 4 and because the legislature did not define death in the Penal Code to include brain death, the court, in determining who or what caused the victim's death, must use a common-law definition of death, which does not include brain death, but rather depends solely upon the cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions of the body. 5 On the basis of the evidence, the Appellate Court concluded that "because traditional principles of causation allow this defendant to be found guilty of murder despite the action of another of removing the victim from life support systems," it did not need to decide whether to adopt judicially in the criminal setting a definition of death that includes brain death. Id., at 797, 692 A.2d 849.

In this certified appeal, the defendant again argues that because Connecticut did not adopt the Uniform Determination of Death Act and because the Penal Code does not expressly define death, we must use the common-law definition, which, according to the defendant, does not include brain death, to define the cause of death in this case. The defendant recognizes that Connecticut has enacted General Statutes § 19a-504a, 6 which contains language that is identical to the language of the uniform act; see footnote 4 of this opinion; but argues that § 19a-504a(b) relates, not to assessing criminal liability, but, rather, to how a licensed hospital may "mak[e] a determination concerning the continuation or removal of any life support system...." He relies on the prefatory language of § 19a-504a, which limits the language governing the determination of death to those portions of the General Statutes dealing with public health and well-being and removal of life support systems. 7 According to the defendant, the fact that the legislature knew of the number of states that had adopted the uniform definition of death but, nevertheless, chose to include this prefatory language in § 19a-504a, is evidence that it did not intend to adopt the uniform act or apply that definition of death to other statutes, such as those in the Penal Code. Furthermore, the defendant argues that, by failing to provide a definition within the Penal Code, the legislature intended for courts to rely on the common-law definition of death then in existence.

The state argues in response that the legislature adopted a uniform definition of death to achieve uniformity in responding to the advances in medical technology and that the prefatory language should not be exaggerated in a way that undermines that intent. Based upon that assumption, the state contends, it is illogical to suppose that the legislature intended that...

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