Williams v. U.S.

Decision Date31 October 1989
Docket NumberNo. 85-1158.,85-1158.
Citation569 A.2d 97
PartiesRobert L. WILLIAMS, Appellant, v. UNITED STATES, Appellee.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

Thomas B. Mason, Public Defender Service, with whom James Klein, Public Defender Service, Washington, D.C., was on the brief, for appellant.

Ann K.H. Simon, Asst. U.S. Atty., with whom Jay B. Stephens, U.S. Atty., and Michael W. Farrell, Asst. U.S. Atty. at the time the brief was filed, and Charles L. Hall, Asst. U.S. Atty., Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellee.

Before MACK* and FERREN, Associate Judges, and GALLAGHER, Senior Judge.

FERREN, Associate Judge:

Appellant pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter while armed, D.C.Code §§ 22-2405, -3202 (1981 & 1989 Supp.), and five counts of manslaughter, id. § 22-2405 (1981), all arising out of an incident in which he struck and killed seven pedestrians with his car. The trial court sentenced him to consecutive terms of five to fifteen years in prison on each count. Appellant argues on direct appeal that he committed only one offense for which he was punished seven times in violation of the double jeopardy clause of the fifth amendment. We disagree and thus affirm his convictions.1


At the plea proceeding, the government proffered that its evidence at trial would have shown that appellant drove his car on the wrong side of the street for several blocks, travelling at speeds of between fifty and eighty miles per hour; that when appellant attempted to move to the right side of the road, he hit the median strip and crashed onto the sidewalk and into a crowd of pedestrians; that he struck and injured nine pedestrians, killing seven of them; and that appellant's blood alcohol level was .105 percent at the time of the accident. Appellant testified, conceding that he was driving while under the influence of alcohol and narcotics. He did not recall the accident or any of the related events except for those occurring sometime after the injured pedestrians' relatives pulled appellant from his burning car.


Appellant relies on the double jeopardy clause, which prohibits "multiple punishments for the same offense." North Carolina v. Pearce, 395 U.S. 711, 717, 89 S.Ct. 2072, 2076, 23 L.Ed.2d 656 (1969). This restriction on multiple punishments for one offense, however, "serves principally as a restraint on courts and prosecutors" who otherwise might seek to punish too severely, Brown v. Ohio, 432 U.S. 161, 165, 97 S.Ct. 2221, 2225, 53 L.Ed.2d 187 (1977); it does not limit the legislature's ability to define criminal offenses. Thus, whether particular conduct constitutes one or several offenses, if not clear from the statutory language, is ordinarily determined by reference to the legislative intent in framing the offense. See Ladner v. United States, 358 U.S. 169, 79 S.Ct. 209, 3 L.Ed.2d 199 (1958); Bell v. United States, 349 U.S. 81, 75 S.Ct. 620, 99 L.Ed. 905 (1955).

Appellant argues — and we agree — that neither the statute nor its legislative history defines manslaughter in the District of Columbia; manslaughter is defined, rather, by reference to the common law. See United States v. Bradford, 344 A.2d 208, 213 (D.C. 1975).2 Appellant then argues that the common law defines manslaughter by reference to the reckless act committed, not by reference to the number of victims. Therefore, he says, the trial court violated his rights under the double jeopardy clause by punishing him seven times for one reckless act — one offense.

We agree with appellant's analytic framework. If, as he suggests, the common law defines manslaughter by reference to the criminal act causing the harm, rather than by reference to the number of victims of that act, then appellant's convictions may have to be vacated for insufficient proof of more than one offense. But, as appellant would concede, if manslaughter is defined by reference to the number of victims, then there is no double jeopardy problem with appellant's punishment for multiple offenses because seven persons died as a result of appellant's conduct.

Our task, therefore, is to determine how the common law of the District of Columbia defines the offense of manslaughter. There are no dispositive cases in this jurisdiction that determine whether a single reckless act3 resulting in more than one death is a single offense, or constitutes multiple offenses, of manslaughter.4 Appellant argues that we must look to English common law of the eighteenth century, which, he says, is binding on this court because it has not been abrogated by statute or by subsequent caselaw. He then contends that, under English common law, a single act resulting in multiple deaths constituted only a single offense of manslaughter.

In addressing appellant's argument, we discuss, first, the English common law precedent on which he relies. We conclude that these early decisions do not establish appellant's position. Next, we look at the later common law, analyze what the proper unit of prosecution is for manslaughter cases in the District of Columbia, and conclude that each death results in a separate manslaughter offense.


By Act of Congress, D.C.Code § 49-301 (1981), we are bound by Maryland common law in effect as of 1801 (incorporating English common law and statutes in effect as of 1776) unless expressly repealed or modified by statute.5 As a result, we have decided cases according to rules that are "well entrenched in [the] common law." O'Connor v. United States, 399 A.2d 21, 24 (D.C. 1979) (applying doctrine of transferred intent derived from English common law adopted by Maryland in 1776); see also Linkins v. Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Found. of the Dist. of Columbia, 87 U.S.App.D.C. 351, 187 F.2d 357 (1950) (applying doctrine of dependent relative revocation of wills from English case decided in 1716).

We have held, however, that by incorporating the common law of Maryland, see supra note 5, Congress did not intend to freeze the common law as it existed in 1801. United States v. Tucker, 407 A.2d 1067, 1069 (D.C. 1979); see Linkins, 87 U.S. App.D.C. at 355, 187 F.2d at 360-61. Rather, Congress meant to incorporate the "dynamic" common law, not merely "its then-current pronouncements on specific problems." Linkins, 87 U.S.App.D.C. at 355, 187 F.2d at 361. As a consequence, at times we have declined to retain a common law rule, having concluded that D.C.Code § 49-301 "is not a bar to the exercise of our inherent power to alter or amend the common law." United States v. Jackson, 528 A.2d 1211, 1216 (D.C. 1987) (prospectively abolishing year and a day rule in murder prosecutions); see also Tucker, 407 A.2d at 1069-70 (declining to follow common law rule that one reaches a given age on day preceding anniversary of one's birth).

We agree with appellant, however, that if there is a clear English common law rule defining the offense of manslaughter as of 1776 that would benefit him, we must apply that rule; because of ex post facto law concerns, whatever inherent power we have to amend the common law cannot be used to deprive appellant retroactively of a more lenient rule that would otherwise be in force.6 If there is no such clear common law as of 1776, however, then we are left to discern and apply the "dynamic" common law of the District of Columbia derived from all reasonable, available sources. See Linkins, 87 U.S.App.D.C. at 355, 187 F.2d at 361. We therefore turn to the historic common law.


In arguing that the law of England in 1776 reflected a clear rule that a single act injuring two or more persons is but one offense, appellant initially cites two cases: King v. Clendon, 92 Eng.Rep. 517 (1730), and Rex v. Benfield, 97 Eng.Rep. 664 (1760). In Glendon, the court dismissed an indictment charging the defendant with assault and battery of two individuals in a single count. The court held that, because the offenses were several, the indictment should have charged them separately. Glendon, therefore, arguably stands for the proposition that acts directed against different individuals constitute different offenses.

Appellant argues, however, that Clendon, which obviously does not support his position, was overruled in Benfield, a case of criminal libel. Benfield and four others were charged with unlawfully intending to "disturb, molest and disquiet" Daniel Cooke and to "destroy his domestic peace and happiness in his family, and the comfort he had in his said two children, John and Jane Cooke," and to injure Daniel Cooke in "his trade and business of a grocer" by singing songs outside of Daniel Cooke's home that libelled John and Jane Cooke. 97 Eng.Rep. at 664-65. Benfield appealed, claiming that the indictment could not lie against him because it charged as one offense two different offenses, the libel against John and the libel against Jane. Id. at 665. The crown answered that Benfield's actions constituted a single offense:

[T]he gist of the charge is singing these songs, in the manner and with the intent charged in the information; and singing them at the father's door with intent to discredit him and his children, and disturb his domestic peace and comfort.

Id. at 666. The court distinguished Clendon and ruled for the crown, stating, in effect, that the criminal libel involved punishment for an offense, not compensation for injured individuals: "Can not the King call a man to account for a breach of the peace; because he broke two heads instead of one?" Id.

Appellant argues that the court in Benfield actually overruled Glendon, creating a new rule that single acts with multiple victims constitute but a single offense. Benfield, however, does not support appellant's position because the court appeared to be making a distinction between continuous and distinct offenses — a distinction commonly used today.7 Compare Ebeling v. Morgan, 237 U.S. 625, 35 S.Ct. 710, 59 L.Ed. 1151 (1915) (each tearing of mailbags is separate offense); In re...

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