Q: There is a gruesome news report about a Massachusetts mother of three who has not been seen since the new year. Her husband has been charged with her murder, but they have not found a body. A murder case can go forward even without a body and a conviction can be obtained?
F.M., Del Aire
A: Research indicates there is a good success rate in convicting a person accused of murder, even though no body is found. Last year, for example, a man was convicted of murdering Kristin Smart although her body has never been found (she went missing in 1996).
The particular case you refer to involves Ana Walshe (who is missing) and her husband, Brian. Reading about it suggests there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence (from items Mr. Walshe was researching online to trash bags that contain apparent blood stains, a hacksaw and more). Bottom line, if no body is found, the jury will be instructed on what is required to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and how the jurors are entitled to evaluate and treat circumstantial evidence. If there is only one reasonable conclusion, that might be part of what persuades a jury to convict someone of murder, even if no body is ever found.
Q: Can you explain involuntary manslaughter, and do you have any thoughts on the charges against actor Alec Baldwin?
A: California Penal Code Section 192b defines involuntary manslaughter as the unintentional killing of another person while committing either a crime that is not an inherently dangerous felony, or a lawful act that might produce death. An example would be if an employer forces his employee to keep working outdoors during very substantial heat, which ultimately results in the person dying from heatstroke.
Involuntary manslaughter in California is a felony. The possible punishments include imprisonment in county jail for up to four years and a fine of up to $10,000.
The criminal case against Alec Baldwin is in New Mexico, which has its own statute with regard to involuntary manslaughter. There likely are similarities to our statute here. We can assume Baldwin did not intend to harm, let alone kill, anyone, but did he act so recklessly by not checking the gun before he fired that his conduct rises to the level of involuntary manslaughter? That will be one of the myriad issues the jurors will have to decide. Further, if I understand correctly, he is sued in two capacities — as himself, the actor taking the action, and as the producer who has a role in oversight of the set. The prosecutor has two hats Baldwin was wearing and perhaps that makes her job a bit less difficult.
Still, I think many lawyers will opine that the involuntary manslaughter charges against Baldwin are challenging for the prosecutor. We will have to wait and see how it turns out, including whether Baldwin testifies in his own defense.
Q: What is the status of the death penalty in California?
A: The death penalty can be ordered, but for now, it will not be carried out. There is a pause on the death penalty here based on an official moratorium issued several years ago by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Ron Sokol has been a practicing attorney for over 35 years, and has also served many times as a judge pro tem, mediator, and arbitrator. It is important to keep in mind that this column presents a summary of the law, and is not to be treated or considered legal advice, let alone a substitute for actual consultation with a qualified professional.
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