Tuesday, April 6, 2004
Supreme Court Rules:
Knowledge of Pregnancy Unnecessary for Fetal Murder Conviction
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Implied malice sufficient to sustain a conviction for murdering a fetus may be found based on a generalized disregard for life, and no specific disregard for fetal life is necessary, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Knowledge of a victim’s pregnancy need not be proven to convict for fetal murder, Justice Janice Rogers Brown said. The 6-1 ruling overturns a 2002 decision of First District Court of Appeal.
California’s fetal-murder law was passed by the Legislature in 1970. The law is being used to prosecute Scott Peterson in the deaths of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son. More than two dozen states have passed various versions of a fetal-murder law.
President Bush signed similar legislation last week to make it a crime to kill a fetus during the commission of a federal offense, and that law does not require knowledge of the pregnancy. Both the federal legislation and California’s law exempt the killing of a fetus during an abortion.
The Legislature adopted the fetal-murder law after the state Supreme Court overturned the fetal-murder conviction of a Stockton man who, while beating his estranged wife, killed her unborn child. At the time, the court said California’s murder law did not recognize a fetus.
The defendant in the case decided yesterday, Harold Taylor, is a Vietnam veteran found guilty of murdering his former lover, who was at least 10 weeks pregnant.
On appeal, Taylor claimed he did not know Patty Fansler was pregnant, and he argued that he could not be prosecuted for murdering her fetus, which died when Taylor shot and killed the woman in 1999.
Brown said Taylor “did not need to be specifically aware how many potential victims his conscious disregard for life endangered.”
Because of the ruling, Taylor’s 40-year prison term for killing the woman and other offenses is expected to be increased by 25 years, prosecutors said.
In dissent, Justice Joyce L. Kennard endorsed the lower court decision, saying California’s fetal-murder law was vague and “susceptible to two equally reasonable constructions.”
California’s law applies to fetuses beyond eight weeks of gestation. The federal rule applies to an unborn child “at any stage of development.”
Second Degree Murder
Taylor was convicted of the second degree murder of both Fansler, who weighed over 200 pounds and whose pregnancy was only discovered on autopsy, and her fetus.
At trial, he claimed that he only went to Fansler’s house to retrieve money she had taken from him.
He said he took a gun with him because he intended to frighten her, if necessary, into returning the money. The gun, he claimed, discharged accidentally, following which the two tussled and the gun, he testified, went off again.
“As the Attorney General observed during oral argument, if a gunman simply walked down the hall of an apartment building and fired through the closed doors, he would be liable for the murder of all the victims struck by his bullets—including a fetus of one of his anonymous victims who happened to be pregnant. Likewise, defense counsel conceded at oral argument that defendant would be guilty of implied malice murder if one of his bullets had struck an infant concealed by the bed covers—.Had one of Fansler’s other children died during defendant’s assault, there would be no inquiry into whether defendant knew the child was present for implied malice murder liability to attach. Similarly, there is no principled basis on which to require defendant to know Fansler was pregnant to justify an implied malice murder conviction as to her fetus.”
But Kennard said the Legislature had “carefully defined murder in terms of two distinct classes of victims—human beings and fetuses.”
“The majority’s reasoning effectively abrogates this important distinction by the manner in which it defines the mental state requirements for implied malice fetal murder. Instead of requiring proof of implied malice toward a particular fetus or fetuses in general, the majority requires only proof of implied malice toward ‘life in general.’”
Kennard noted that lawmakers rejected a proposal to create the crime of fetal manslaughter.
Since it was unclear whether the Legislature intended the crime of fetal murder to require a different intent element than the crime of murder, the statute should be construed in the manner most favorable to Taylor, Kennard said.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company