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Johnson v. State

Alaska Supreme Court
224 P.3d 105 (2010)


Facts

Frank R. Johnson (defendant) and Heather Takak were parents to an infant girl, Christina Takak. Heather starved Christina to the point of emaciation. Heather also dropped Christina on her head, causing trauma to Christina’s head and brain and ultimately leading to brain hemorrhaging. Christina died one to three days after she was dropped. Johnson was prosecuted for second-degree murder for breaching his duty as a parent to protect his child from harm. At trial, the medical examiner testified that both the starvation and the head trauma had the ability to cause Christina’s death. Johnson argued that the ultimate cause of death was the head trauma and that even if he had been aware that Heather was starving Christina, he could not have known that Heather would drop Christina on her head. The jury was instructed that Johnson could be convicted of the lesser offense of manslaughter if the state (plaintiff) proved that he knowingly or recklessly caused Christina’s death. The jury convicted Johnson of manslaughter and also returned a special verdict form stating that the ultimate cause of Christina’s death was the trauma to her head. Johnson subsequently filed a motion for judgment of acquittal. Johnson argued that even if there were evidence that he recklessly disregarded the risk of Christina starving to death, the special verdict demonstrated that starvation was not the cause of her death. The trial court denied the motion, vacated the verdict, and ordered a new trial. Johnson then petitioned the appeals court, arguing that his motion should have been granted by the trial court. Instead, the appeals court reversed the order for a new trial and affirmed the manslaughter conviction. The appeals court stated that Johnson’s conviction rested on whether Heather dropping Christina was foreseeable, and the appeals court determined that it was. In reaching its conclusion, the appeals court analyzed the broad civil-negligence definition of foreseeability. This definition deems harm to a victim foreseeable if the victim experiences the “general type of harm” a defendant could anticipate, even if the defendant does not anticipate the victim’s specific harm. Johnson petitioned to the state supreme court.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Winfree, J.)

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