People (Attorney General) v Thomas

JurisdictionIreland
CourtSupreme Court
Judgment Date03 June 1954
Date03 June 1954

Court of Criminal Appeal.

Supreme Court.

The People (Attorney General) v. Thomas
THE PEOPLE (at the suit of the Attorney General)
and
ROBERT J. THOMAS (1)

Criminal law - Evidence - Jurisdiction - Manslaughter - Corpus delicti - Dead body not found - Whether sufficient circumstantial evidence to prove fact of death - Fatal blow struck on board state-registered ship on the high seas - Assumption that death took place in the sea - Whether the Central Criminal Court has jurisdiction to try an accused for the offence of manslaughter when death does not occur on board the ship.

Criminal Appeal.

The appellant, Robert J. Thomas was convicted of manslaughter at the Central Criminal Court on the 3rd

February, 1954. The indictment charged him with the murder of one Robert Ernest Humphries, on the 25th August, 1953, on board the motor vessel, "Munster," an Irish ship registered in Dublin, while the said vessel was on the high seas between Liverpool and Dublin. Thomas, who was not an Irish citizen, was travelling to Ireland, with his friend, Humphries, to spend a holiday at the home of Humphries' mother, both having been discharged from the crew of an ocean-going ship, on the completion of its voyage on the previous day at Liverpool. They had spent the greater part of the day in Liverpool drinking together and with friends. They had gone aboard at about 9.40 p.m. where they consumed more drink. The vessel left Liverpool at about 10 p.m. and between then and midnight there were incidents of quarrelling and fighting in which Thomas was prominently involved. At about midnight the two friends came into handgrips and Humphries was thrown or caused to fall overboard from a deck on the ship into the water which was about 20 to 24 feet below. The ship, at this time, was some 15 miles from the nearest land—the coast of Wales—and was travelling at 16 or 17 knots. There was a strong north-west wind and a choppy sea. The sky was overcast and cloudy. The incident was witnessed by a number of persons, but only one person saw Humphries in the water for a moment before he disappeared behind the ship. The alarm was promptly given, life-belts were thrown into the sea, the ship was stopped and turned around and then went back over the same course it had taken. The sea was searched for an hour and a half with the aid of strong lights, but Humphries was never seen or heard of again and his body was never recovered. The trial Judge (Murnaghan J.) gave a certificate for leave to appeal, pursuant to s. 31 of the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, to the Court of Criminal Appeal. The principal grounds of appeal upon which the certificate for appeal was granted were:—(1), (a) that there was no legal evidence of the fact of the death of Robert Ernest Humphries; (b) that the trial Judge was not entitled to leave it to the jury to infer the death of the said Robert Ernest Humphries, on the evidence adduced; and (2) that the Central Criminal Court had no jurisdiction to try for the offence of manslaughter on an Irish ship when death did not occur on board the ship or within the jurisdiction.

On the application of counsel for the appellant the Court granted a certificate, pursuant to s. 29 of the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, that the decision involved a point of law of exceptional public importance, and that it was desirable in the public interest that an appeal should be taken to the Supreme Court. The grounds of appeal on which the certificate was granted were as follows:—(1) that there was no jurisdiction in the trial Court to try for the offence of manslaughter on an Irish ship on the high seas where death was not proved to have taken place on board the said ship or within the jurisdiction.

(2) That the Court of Criminal Appeal was wrong in law in holding that there was any evidence of a felonious assault on board the Irish ship so as to bring the offence charged within the jurisdiction of the trial Court.

In accordance with the certificate granted by the Court of Criminal Appeal the appellant appealed to the Supreme Court (1) on the said grounds and on the following grounds:—

(3) That there was no legal evidence of the death of Robert Humphries.

(4) That the sentence imposed by the trial Court as altered by the Court of Criminal Appeal was excessive.

The accused was convicted of the manslaughter of his friend. R. H. The accused and R. H. were travelling on board an Irish state-registered ship from Liverpool to Dublin and when about fifteen miles out from the Welsh coast they came into handgrips, as a result of which R. H. was thrown into the sea. A search was made for his body, but it was never recovered. The trial Judge gave a certificate allowing the accused to appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal. The grounds of appeal were, inter alia, 1, (a) that there was no legal evidence of the fact of the death of R. H., (b) that on the evidence the trial Judge was not entitled to leave it to the jury to infer the death ofR. H.; 2, that there is no jurisdiction in the Central Criminal Court to try an accused for the offence of manslaughter on an Irish ship where death does not occur on board the ship or within the jurisdiction.

Held by the Court of Criminal Appeal:—

1. That there was evidence on which the jury could be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that R. H. was drowned and that his death was sufficiently proved.

2. That the death of R. H. was the direct consequence of the felonious assault on him by the accused aboard the ship and it was not necessary for the purpose of giving jurisdiction to the Central Criminal Court that the death resulting from the assault should have occurred within the jurisdiction.

3. That the sentence of six years' penal servitude imposed by the trial Judge should, in the circumstances of the case, be reduced to three years' penal servitude.

The Court of Criminal Appeal granted a certificate for appeal to the Supreme Court. The grounds of appeal were:—1, That there was no jurisdiction in the trial Court to try for the offence of manslaughter on an Irish ship on the high seas where death was not proved to have taken place on board the said ship or within the jurisdiction; 2, That the Court of Criminal Appeal was wrong in law in holding that there was any evidence of a felonious assault on board the Irish ship so as to bring the offence charged within the jurisdiction of the trial Court; 3, That there was no legal evidence of the death of R. H.; 4, That the sentence imposed by the trial Court, as altered by the Court of Criminal Appeal, was excessive.

Held by the Supreme Court, (Maguire C.J., Lavery, Kingsmill Moore, O'Daly and Budd JJ.):—

1. There was ample evidence before the jury on which they might conclude that the death had been proved as a moral certainty and so as to leave no ground for reasonable doubt.

2. The evidence pointed only to a death by drowning on the high seas and the act causing the death occurred on board an Irish ship. The two elements necessary to give jurisdiction were both present and the accused was therefore properly triable in the Central Criminal Court.

The Supreme Court accordingly dismissed the appeal and confirmed the conviction and sentence.

R. v. McNicholl [1917] 2 I. R. 557, The People (Attorney General) v.Kirwan, [1943] I. R. 279, Reg. v. Armstrong 13 Cox C.C. 184 approved.

Cur. adv. vult.

The judgment of the Court was delivered by Maguire J.

Maguire J. :—

This is an appeal by leave of the trial Judge from a conviction of manslaughter at the Central Criminal Court on the 3rd February, 1954. The appellant was convicted of manslaughter on an indictment charging him that on the 25th day of August, 1953, on board the motor vessel "Munster,"an Irish ship registered in Dublin, whilst the said vessel was on the high seas between Liverpool and Dublin he murdered one, Robert Ernest Humphries.

The grounds of appeal mentioned in the certificate of the trial Judge are:—

1, (a) that there was no legal evidence of the fact of the death of Robert Ernest Humphries;

(b) that the learned trial Judge was not entitled to leave it to the jury to infer the death of Robert Ernest Humphries on the evidence.

2. That there is no jurisdiction to try for the offence of manslaughter on an Irish ship where death does not occur on board the ship, or within the jurisdiction.

Notice of additional grounds of appeal was served by the appellant, but save in so far as these grounds apply to the sentence of six years' penal servitude passed at the trial, these grounds are not relied upon, or pressed, on the...

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