Bob Dylan's song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” tells the mostly-true story of William Zantzinger's killing of Hattie Carroll in 1963 by striking her with a cane. Zantzinger was a relatively wealthy white man, and Carroll was a poorer black woman working in hotel where Zantzinger was attending a party. The song does not mention race, although the Wikipedia article about the song describes the lyrics as “a commentary on 1960s racism.”

Zantzinger was immediately arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to six months in jail. He served his time and was released. The song emphasizes Zantzinger's privilege and blameworthiness and expresses outrage at the way society responded to the crime.

But if it's true that Zantzinger often hit people without killing, including several other people on the night that he hit Carroll, and in no other case did anybody die, and there was no reason to think that he intended for anybody to die, and Carroll's death was a very surprising result of the actual assault... in what way did the legal process fail? Did he get lighter punishment than he "should have" (in some sense)? Or do you think that there was any failure at all in the legal process?

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    How did the legal process fail? He was convicted and sentenced. Or are you asking if the sentence was too lenient?
    – user35069
    Jun 4, 2021 at 17:46

2 Answers 2


Was This An Egregiously Lenient Sentence? Yes.

Did he get lighter punishment than he "should have" (in some sense)?


A six month sentence for a non-negligent homicide was virtually unprecedented then and remains extremely low.

Even a six month sentence for the rape of an adult woman (which is generally a comparable or less serious offense than manslaughter) by a privileged white offender generates immense controversy today as it did in the case of the sentencing of Brock Turner for that offense in 2016 (something that ultimately cost the judge imposing that sentence his job).

There is no way that intentionally hitting someone is negligent homicide. It is at a minimum reckless, and honestly, is hard to see as anything other than intentional conduct. While it wasn't premeditated and hence wouldn't qualify as first degree murder eligible for the death penalty, this would be a fairly straightforward case for a second degree murder charge and a sentence of a decade or more.

The intentional part apples to the act of hitting someone, not the result of causing their death. This intent was present here.

Where Did The System Fail?

in what way did the legal process fail? Or do you think that there was any failure at all in the legal process?

Was the substantive law at fault? No.

The substantive criminal law in 1963 was very similar to what it is now and would have authorized a much more severe sentence on the crime of conviction and would have made a more serious charge of murder viable.

Arguably the substantive law should have had a mandatory minimum sentence for homicide, but since judges very rarely impose such lenient charges for homicide in cases like this one where there was no good reason for leniency, many states don't do that now and it isn't a problem that legislators would reasonably have believed that they had to worry about. Allowing leniency in some extraordinary cases that capture considerations that the law does not expressly mention is often a good thing, rather than a bad one.

Did The Appellate Process Fail? No.

The defendant's conviction was not wrongfully reversed on appeal, and it is generally not possible for a defendant's sentence to be increased on appeal in these circumstances.

Arguably, this is not an ideal rule of law (and it is not the law in most countries in these circumstances). But this was not a major problem with the legal system that was a primary reason causing the outcome in this case to be an exceptional miscarriage of justice.

The Judge's Sentence Was An Abuse Of Discretion.

The judge imposed a very light sentence within the statutorily allowed range of discretion.

While we can't literally read the mind of the judge and the judge doesn't acknowledge this as a basis for the sentence, given a larger pattern of similarly lenient sentences of similarly situated people given light sentences by judges, we can make a very reasonable guess about the most likely and plausible reason for the lenient sentence.

The most likely and plausible reason for the sentence is the one identified by Bob Dylan. A high status white man killed a low status black woman, and the judge felt that, as a result, it didn't justify as serious of a sentence.

The actual chain of reasoning in the judge's mind consciously may have involved considerations like the view that the victim was an "eggshell" victim, and the likelihood that the defendant was capable of reforming his conduct after a short sentence and thus didn't present a threat to the public.

But the courts very rarely grant leniency to someone on the grounds that the victim was "fragile" - usually this justifies a more severe sentence. And the documented fact that the perpetrator routinely assaulted others with his cane casts grave doubt on the extent to which he could be rehabilitated more easily than a typical defendant.

Also, even if the charge of conviction was manslaughter, this case would have been considered at the high end of the range in terms of the culpability of the offender who went around assaulting many people at a public gathering seriously enough to cause harm, and to in one case cause a death of a more fragile victim. The sentence should have been at least at the midpoint of what is allowed (currently about five years out of ten possible) in a case like this one.

Further, while Maryland is not in the "Deep South" it is a Southern state with a history of slavery and Jim Crow discrimination, and the judge in this case would have lived under and seen enforced to his benefit, Jim Crow laws in Maryland during his lifetime.

The Civil Rights movement had not succeeded to the point that racism was a completely disavowed and unacceptable form of motivation in 1963, particularly in even parts of the South outside of the "Deep South" at that time.

As a reference point, President Biden, in nearby Delaware, was starting to make a name for himself in politics at the time as a defender of segregation in the school system and an opponent of busing to desegregate schools. This issue got him elected and re-elected. Biden reformed his views later, but racism was alive and well in Chesapeake Bay area at the time.

Was Prosecutorial Discretion An Issue? Possibly To Some Extent.

The prosecution's decision to press charges for manslaughter rather than murder was also questionable, but less obviously so. Today, common practice would be to bring both murder and manslaughter charges in a case like this one. The facts would have supported a second degree murder charge.

The fact that the prosecution originally brought a murder charge suggests that it knew that the facts supported that charge, and was influenced by some political or tactical consideration, or by judicial pressure, to drop the more serious charge before trial. But without insight into what that reason was (which is much less obvious than the judge's motivations) it is hard to judge whether the prosecutor should have acted differently under the circumstances.

The fact that the prosecution pressed charges, took the case to trial, and got a conviction at all also suggests that the prosecutor's conduct was not at the bottom of the barrel compared to more racist prosecutor exercises of discretion in 1963 elsewhere in the U.S. The prosecutor had the full legal ability to decline to press charges at all without facing any legal consequences for failing to do so.

Further, while it is certainly plausible that prosecutor's racism figured into this decision, it is also important to note that the prosecutor has to consider the attitudes of a likely jury pool when bringing charges. Even if the prosecutor believes that the defendant is guilty of murder under the law, the prosecutor has to consider whether the odds of getting a conviction from a local jury that is likely to have considerable racial bias influences what charges are right to bring in order to get a maximum conviction, as opposed to what charges the prosecutor believes are legally justified.

Likewise, if the judge indicated the he would be likely to dismiss the murder charge before trial in a preliminary hearing, that would also make a prosecutor's decision to comply with an implicit judicial suggestion to stay in the judge's good graces for the remainder of this case, and for future cases before the same judge, understandable.

However, if electoral public pressure, or the defense counsel's pressure or influence, caused the prosecutor to give up on a murder charge that a conviction would probably have been secured upon, this is much more problematic and would suggest racial and status bias on the part of the prosecuting attorney's office.

Was Jury Conduct An Issue? No.

The conduct of the jury in this case was not an issue, even though the potential of jury nullification that didn't happen was a factor that may have influenced the charge brought by the prosecution. The jury convicted the defendant on the most serious charge presented to it.

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    @NateEldredge The common law definition of murder requires knowingly or intentionally engaging in the unjustified act (i.e. striking someone) that causes the death, but does not require an intent that death or even grievous bodily harm result from the act.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 4, 2021 at 18:56
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    "statutorily allowed range of discretion": I'm prepared to argue a priori that mandatory minimums are an aberration because sooner or later some bizarre case will come up where the minimum is unconstitutionally too much. Not trying on this case though.
    – Joshua
    Jun 5, 2021 at 18:08
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    So if somebody loses his temper in a bar and punches somebody, and as a freak result the victim dies, you would expect the assailant to go to jail for more than five years? Are there really cases like that?
    – Chaim
    Jun 6, 2021 at 14:13
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    @Chaim But otherwise I would certainly expect such a sentence if a person dies following a punch to the head or a punch that can be reasonably excepted to cause someone to fall. Even in Canada where sentencing are broadly far more lenient than US, manslaughter in such circumstances carries a custodial sentence more than three years (for non-Indigenous offenders).
    – xngtng
    Jun 6, 2021 at 16:14
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    @Chaim "if somebody loses his temper in a bar and punches somebody" the fact pattern that you suggest would be very typical for a sentence of that length. It is almost the modal (i.e. most common but not majority) fact pattern in homicide cases.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 7, 2021 at 21:27

So under U.S. Law, a death of a person as a result of someone else's commission of a felonious act (In this case, an assault) is considered "Felony Murder" or "Manslaughter" depending on the Jurisdiction (reading the Wikipedia article it was Manslaughter).

While he was initially charged with Murder, the prosecution later downgraded to Manslaughter and Assault. This was because Murder is much more difficult to prove than Manslaughter and Carroll's death was a result of her health as much as it was his assault. While this still does not excuse Zantzinger, the fact is that under modern Maryland law, Manslaughter has a maximum sentence of 2 years (plus $500 fine) or 10 years and no fine. Assault is Maximum of 10 years and a $2500 fine. I am not sure if this was amended since the time of the crime.

With all that said, there is no mandatory minimum and I can't find details about what was happening during the sentencing trial, but the prosecution need not seek the maximum sentence and often does not, especially for first time offenders. That said, while Maryland is not traditionally thought of as a "Southern" state due to it's remaining in the Union during the Civil war, it's northern border with PA is the Mason-Dixon line, the traditional demarcation point that divides the Northern and Southern states and also give the southern U.S. it's folk nickname "Dixie". Maryland only remained in the Union due to Lincoln using some very unconstitutional tactics to keep it there and even then, Maryland had units that fought on both sides of the Civil War and was so critical to General Lee's strategy that an entire part of the war was called "The Maryland Campaign". To say Maryland's history with racism is non-existent is a lie and in 1964, it's not without question that either the prosecution or the judge pushed for a lighter sentence for Zantzinger than they would of had Carroll been white.

However, without easy access to the trial transcripts or notes from either individual, the accusation of racial motivation in the sentencing is neither proven nor disproven. It's not beyond the realm of possibility, though the fact that Murder was on the table shows that to some extent, the prosecution wanted to get a more serious charge and had to downgrade to have a better chance at getting a guilty verdict, may show that Zantzinger was charged with the intention of getting him as much jail time as they thought they could get. This leaves the sentencing up to any difference between what he asked for and what the judge agreed too. If the Judge was largely under the prosecution's request, it might show biased towards Zantzinger that could be racially motivated. If not, it at least shows the judge and the prosecution were at the least in agreement on the sentence, which then needs to be compared with similar crimes at the time of the incident and how they were sentenced.

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