CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Texas: School Bus Driver Charged with Felony Murder for Child's Death

CrumpSouth Texas CrimProf Susan Crump (pictured) explains the Harris County, Texas Prosecutor's decision to charge a school bus driver with felony murder for a child's death that resulted from a road accident.  The bus driver, Jerry Michael Cook, was driving his school bus a block away from the school when he hit and killed 9 year-old Ruth Young, a fourth-grader at the school.  Cook failed to yield the right of way to the girl as she was riding her bike. 

From The Houston Chronicle: [Crump said Harris County prosecutor Warren Diepraam] "is well within the law to file a felony murder charge against the bus driver, but called the move 'unusual.'...Crump said the law identifies various ways in which murder is committed in Texas. The felony murder with which Cook is charged occurs when a person commits an underlying felony (injury to a child) and the person commits a clearly dangerous act to human life that causes the death of the victim...Cook also can be charged with criminal negligent homicide because the charge is not included as a lesser offense to felony murder under the penal code.

Under the penal code, a person commits criminal negligent homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual. Criminal homicide is listed as murder, capital murder, manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. Most bus drivers involved in the deaths of students in recent years were charged with criminal negligent homicide, although the charges later were dismissed by grand juries.  A felony murder charge [in Texas] is punishable by up to life in prison and a $10,000 fine. Criminal negligent homicide is a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in jail and a $10,000 fine...

Diepraam said he chose to seek a murder charge because the law provides extra protection for children. Diepraam says the Cook case is different from the other bus fatality cases.  'Generally speaking it's a fact-based situation. If it's something where the kid jumps in front of the school bus driver or something that is unexpected or purely an accident — it doesn't involve negligence or recklessness on the part of the bus driver — I wouldn't expect charges to be filed,' Diepraam said. 'There are many different factors that are alleged in this one.'  The prosecutor said Cook committed the felony offense of injury to a child by negligently and recklessly causing Ruth's death. Cook, he said, by failing to maintain a proper lookout for Ruth and by failing to yield the right of way to her caused the girl's death. The bus, he said, constitutes the use of a deadly weapon." [Mark Godsey]

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In this America, we try to hold persons responsible for their actions and sometimes their inactions. We have laws designed to protect the general public from each other. Recently, parents are held accountable for the indiscretions of their children, why not their animals?

The preamble of the US Constitution states:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The phrase “promote the general welfare” must also apply to responsible persons living in this country. If a child or animal for which I am responsible has committed a grievous offense against the person or property of another, then I would expect to be held accountable. When it is demonstrated that a child or animal has dangerous or destructive potential, the person responsible for that child or animal is equally dangerous or destructive.

What is especially disturbing is the line in the Statesman article that says that authorities “have been unable to conclude that owner Jose Hernandez committed a felony”. With all the subtle laws describing different acts, liabilities and accountabilities related to the taking of a human life, how is it possible to miss Negligent Manslaughter: The killing of another person through gross negligence?

Does negligent manslaughter only apply to cars and guns?




§ 19.04. MANSLAUGHTER. (a) A person commits an
offense if he recklessly causes the death of an individual.

Posted by: Dea Cummings | Nov 29, 2005 9:05:34 AM

I found this site on google looking for some law on negligent homicide in Texas. My curiosity is based on the fact that the Texas authorities are saying that there is no way VP Cheney would be charged with any criminal conduct for the accidental shooting of a hunting companion. That seems fair if the victim survives and doesn't want to press charges. But today it's reported that a piece of shot is close to his heart and I was wondering what would happen if the victim should die. Despite all the official spin, the
fact is that Cheney violated basic hunting protocol by not making sure the range was clear before firing --i.e. he acted recklessly. Shouldn't this at least be given to a grand jury?

Posted by: rich latimer | Feb 15, 2006 6:42:35 AM

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