Second degree murder based on implied malice has been committed when a person does an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life, which act was deliberately performed by a person who knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and who acts with conscious disregard for life. Phrased in a different way, malice may be implied when defendant does an act with a high probability that it will result in death and does it with a base antisocial motive and with a wanton disregard for human life.
Three patients of a dentist died as a result of general anesthesia administered by the dentist or his staff. In each case, the dentist did not supply proper general anesthesia or tailor the dosage to the patient. At trial, there was also evidence that, without the patient's authorization, the dentist substituted surrogate dentists who were neither licensed nor qualified to administer the anesthesia. He instructed them to give improperly preset doses for extended periods with little or no personal supervision and caused multiple patients to receive increasing amounts of general anesthesia at the same time, none of them enjoying his undivided attention. He was also habitually slow in reacting to the resulting overdoses and simply abandoned one patient. The trial court convicted him of second degree murder in all three cases. He appealed the case to the Court of Appeal of California.
Was a conviction of second degree murder valid?
The Court held that there was sufficient evidence of implied malice to sustain the convictions for second degree murder. The Court explained that malice may be implied when a person, knowing that his conduct endangers the life of another, nonetheless acts deliberately with conscious disregard for life. Implied malice contemplates a subjective awareness of a higher degree of risk than does gross negligence, and involves an element of wantonness which is absent in gross negligence. In this case, it was clear that implied malice was evident in the circumstances resulting in the death of the three patients.