California courts construe a penal statute as favorably to the defendant as its language and the circumstances of its application may reasonably permit; just as in the case of a question of fact, the defendant is entitled to the benefit of every reasonable doubt as to the true interpretation of words or the construction of language used in a statute.
Petitioner accosted his wife after finding out she was pregnant with another man's child. He began to beat her in the abdomen. As a result, the fetus was stillborn. Petitioner was charged with several crimes including the murder of the baby. On denial of his motion to set aside the information for lack of probable cause, he petitioned for a writ of prohibition to prevent the superior court from proceeding with the prosecution on the murder charge.
Whether the killing of an unborn but viable fetus constitutes murder.
The court issued the writ and held that an unborn but viable fetus was not a human being within meaning of Cal. Penal Code § 187. It is the policy of the state to construe a penal statute as favorably to the defendant as its language and the circumstances of its application may reasonably permit. The court's extensive survey of the legislature's intent and purpose in adopting § 187 revealed that it did not intend to bring an unborn fetus within reaches of the statute. The court declared that it would exceed its judicial and constitutional limits if it were it to declare an unborn fetus to be within the murder statute. Furthermore, assuming the court could adopt such a rule, it could only apply it prospectively. Applying the new rule to petitioner would have violated petitioner's right to due process.