In today’s news, a landmark court case is being set. A man from Alaska is being charged with second-degree murder in an automobile accident where he slammed head-on into an oncoming car and killed its two occupants. It’s being pressed as murder because he was allegedly watching an in-dash DVD (“Road Trip”, of all movies) at the time of the accident, causing him to drift over the center line and hit the other vehicle.

Although he claims to have been listening to music and not watching the DVD player, in a telephone call from the hospital to his ex-wife that night he admitted that he was “distracted by the movie” he and his front-seat passenger were watching. Furthermore, his DVD player had been custom-installed in order to bypass the safety feature that will prohibit it from playing unless the vehicle is parked.

Regardless of whether he was actually watching the movie and whether it caused the accident, it raises an interesting question and point of law: when does manslaughter (accidental killing) become murder (intentional killing)?

Typically, drunk drivers are charged with manslaughter if they kill someone in an accident, because it’s assumed they didn’t have “malice aforethought” which is one of the prerequisites for a murder charge. However, the prosecutor in this particular case insists that since the defendant bypassed the safety system in an effort to make it possible to watch movies while driving, he was showing a blatant disregard for human life. In other words, because he would be in control of a ton of high-speed steel certainly capable of killing someone, and elected to place the importance of his entertainment above the importance of paying attention to his driving, he should not only be held responsible for the deaths but shouldn’t be able to claim it was an “accident” at all.

If convicted, this would create a powerful precendent for holding people responsible for their actions if they are being knowingly careless while doing things that could endanger others.