Oklahoma Firefighter Facing Manslaughter Over Fight in Station

A firefighter who punched another firefighter in an altercation over backing up a fire truck is now facing manslaughter charges.

Strother, Oklahoma firefighter Harold Sims struck firefighter-Chaplain Dale Patterson last February. The assault took place in the fire station and Patterson later died from his injuries. Seminole County prosecutors opted not to charge Sims with murder, but instead charged him with first degree manslaughter.

 

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For those interested, one of the key points in this case will undoubtedly be Sims’ mental state when he struck Patterson. Recall that crimes usually have 2 or 3 elements: an act/omission; a mental state; and (in some cases) an attendant circumstance (not an issue here).

The act requirement for a homicide offense appears to be satisfied because Sims committed an act that caused Patterson’s death. Thus the only issue will be what was Sims’ mental state when he struck Patterson. If Sims acted intentionally (purposefully, knowingly or with depraved heart recklessness) it would be enough to convict him of murder.

Also to keep in mind – murder does not require intent to cause someone’s death, but rather it requires intent to cause physical contact capable of resulting in serious bodily injury. That may be a stretch here but arguments can be made both ways. On balance the prosecutor’s decision to charge Sims with manslaughter is probably a wiser course of action – certainly it will be an easier case to prove than murder.

The mental state for manslaughter is recklessness – or consciously disregarding a known and substantial risk of harm. Thus the prosecution will have to show that when Sims struck Patterson he was consciously disregarding a known and substantial risk of harm (ie. serious bodily injury or death). That is much easier to prove than the fact that Sims desired or knew to substantial certainty that Patterson would suffer serious bodily injury or death.

At a minimum, Sims could be facing a negligent homicide type charge where the mental state requirement is criminal negligence. That would seem to be the easiest case to make.

For the Legal Eagles out there… can you think of a way this case could result in murder charges that we have not discussed? Here’s a hint: F.M.

And how about possible defenses?

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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