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Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought. Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a). Second degree murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought but without the additional elements, such as willfulness, premeditation, and deliberation, that would support a conviction of first degree murder. Malice may be either express (as when a defendant manifests a deliberate intention to take away the life of a fellow creature) or implied. Malice is implied when the killing is proximately caused by an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life, which act was deliberately performed by a person who knows that his or her conduct endangers the life of another and who acts with conscious disregard for life. In short, implied malice requires a defendant's awareness of engaging in conduct that endangers the life of another.
Defendant Seth Craven punched the victim, resulting in the victim’s head hitting the concrete. The victim died, and a jury found defendant guilty of second-degree murder under a theory of implied malice, under Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a). The Court of Appeals reduced the murder conviction to voluntary manslaughter, finding that a single fist blow to the head, although occurring on pavement, did not involve a high probability of death and thus that there was insufficient evidence of implied malice. The Attorney General petitioned for review.
Was there sufficient evidence to support defendant’s conviction of second-degree murder under a theory of implied malice?
The Supreme Court of California concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's finding of implied malice, rejecting defendant's assertion that the natural consequence of his conduct was merely a sore jaw. The jury was not compelled to credit the defense version that this was a fistfight between two evenly matched adversaries. Rather, the record supported a finding that the victim was impaired, exhausted, and completely unaware that he needed to defend himself against a forceful punch, let alone a forceful punch to the head. Defendant was bigger and taller than the victim, and his punch emerged from the greater height of the curb after a running start, landed with unprecedented force, and launched the victim head first to the pavement with a sickening crack that was loud enough to be heard in neighbors' homes. The jury was also not compelled to deem the death a freak result. As the jury found, it was an extremely powerful blow to the head calculated to catch the impaired victim off guard, without any opportunity for him to protect his head, and thereby to deliver the victim directly and rapidly at his most vulnerable to a most unforgiving surface.