IN THE SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA
Plaintiff and Respondent,
Ct.App. 4/1 D054613
San Diego County
Defendant and Appellant.
Super. Ct. No. SCD206917
MODIFICATION OF OPINION
The opinion in this matter filed on January 30, 2012, and appearing at 53
Cal.4th 500, is modified as follows:
1. On page 508, the sentence in the last partial paragraph beginning with
the words, “Witnesses testified that just before,” is modified by changing the
words, “Witnesses testified” to “There was testimony.”
2. On page 512, the disposition is modified to read as follows: “The
judgment of the Court of Appeal is reversed to the extent it ordered modification
of the second degree murder conviction, and the matter is remanded to that court
for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
This modification affects the judgment.
Petition for review after the Court of Appeal modified and affirmed a judgment of conviction of criminal offenses. This case presents the following issues: (1) Was the evidence sufficient to support defendant's conviction for second degree murder on a theory of implied malice when defendant , during a lull in a fight between the victim and one of defendant's friends, knocked the victim unconscious with a single punch, causing him to fall to the ground, fracture his skull, and die? (2) Did the Court of Appeal properly reduce defendant's murder conviction to voluntary manslaughter on the theory that any unintentional killing without malice that occurs during the commission of a felony assault is voluntary manslaughter?
|Wed, 03/14/2012||53 Cal. 4th 500, 267 P.3d 1113, 136 Cal. Rptr. 3d 40||S186661M|
|Opinion||Justice Marvin R. Baxter|
|Concur||Justice Goodwin Liu|
|Dissent||Justice Joyce L. Kennard|
Respondent's Petition for Review.pdf (1368346 bytes) - Respondent's Petition for Review, filed Sept. 24, 2010
Appellant's Answer to Petition for Review.pdf (395043 bytes) - Appellant's Answer to Petition for Review, filed Oct. 12, 2010
Respondent's Opening Brief on the Merits.pdf (432970 bytes) - Respondent's Opening Brief on the Merits, filed Jan. 21, 2011
Appellant's Answer Brief on the Merits.pdf (629380 bytes) - Appellant's Answer Brief on the Merits, filed Mar. 9, 2011
Respondent's Reply Brief on the Merits.pdf (154035 bytes) - Respondent's Reply Brief on the Merits, filed Mar. 29, 2011
|Jun 8, 2012|
Annotated by Eugenia Poland
Near midnight on May 23, 2007, defendant, 21-year-old Seth Cravens, and several friends arrived at La Jolla Brewhouse. An argument ensued between defendant's friend and former football teammate, Eric House, and Emery Kauanui, the decedent. Kauanui was asked to leave the bar and his girlfriend,Jennifer Grosso, drove him home. Kauanui's girlfriend returned to the bar and heard Cravens say, “Let's go fuck him up....”
Cravens, House, and two or three other friends who had been at the bar drove to Kauanui's house. Cravens was encouraging House to fight Kauanui. When the group arrived at Kauanui's house, a fight immediately ensued. Testimony from Kauanui's neighbor and friends who witnessed the fight asserted that the fight was a group beating with Cravens, House, Yanke, Osuno, and Hendricks against Kauanui. However, Cravens's friends and teammates who arrived with him claimed it was a one-on-one fight between House and Kauanui.
By the time Grosso returned, Kauanui was on the ground getting pummeled. The fight continued, but eventually the group decided to leave. Kauanui rose, but could not walk steadily, and asked defendant,“How the fuck are you going to jump me at my house?” Kauanui was not being aggressive, but Cravens responded with a punch that knocked Kauanui to the ground, and his skull cracked against the concrete. Cravens was standing on the curb, and Kauanui had been standing below at street level. Cravens made no effort to assist Kauanui as he lay motionless with blood pooling around his head. Later that night and the next day, defendant bragged about his punch and joked about Kauanui's condition.
Doctors at the hospital performed a craniotomy and a craniectomy, but pressure on the brain worsened and Kauanui was pronounced brain dead on May 28, 2007. The autopsy revealed that the cause of death was blunt-force head injury.
Defendant was convicted in the Superior Court, San Diego County, of second degree murder and other crimes. Defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeal reduced his conviction to voluntary manslaughter due to insufficient evidence of implied malice, and otherwise affirmed. The Supreme Court of California granted the Attorney General's petition for review.
Was the evidence sufficient to satisfy the physical and mental components of implied malice to support a second degree murder conviction?
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal to the extent the Court of Appeal ordered modification of the second degree murder conviction and remanded to that court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
The jury reasonably found that the manner and circumstances of the assault made the natural consequences of Cravens's conduct dangerous to life, thereby satisfying the physical component of implied malice. Although the attack was a single punch, this case is distinguishable from People v. Spring, 153 Cal. App. 3d 1199, 200 Cal. Rptr. 849 (1984), because in that case the punch was comparatively much weaker and would not normally have caused death upon receipt except by chance. The court in Spring found that death was not likely nor predictable. In this case, however, defendant delivered a very hard sucker punch from the added height of the curb against a tired, battered, and intoxicated Kauanui, who was shorter and lighter than defendant. Defendant's surprise punch from on-high ensured that Kauanui would hit the concrete, and the consequences of falling on such a surface must have been known to Cravens. Moreover, defendant's past pattern of sucker punching victims was considered by the jury as evidence of a common plan or scheme to show that defendant knew Kauanui was vulnerable and it was reasonable for the jury to infer that defendant's act of violence was dangerous to human life, and predictably so.
The evidence also supports a reasonable finding by the jury that the defendant possessed the requisite mental component of implied malice, that is, knowing and conscious disregard for another's life. Defendant's subjective awareness could be inferred by the jury from the circumstances of the attack. People v. Gray, 37 Cal. 4th 168, 218, 33 Cal. Rptr. 3d 451, 118 P.3d 496 (2005). Moreover, defendant egged House on to fight Kauanui, left the scene without assisting or trying to ascertain Kauanui's condition and later bragged and joked about the attack, supporting a finding of the mental component of implied malice.
California Penal Code § 188 defines the standard for implied malice as "when circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart." Pen. Code § 188. Under People v. Thomas, 41 Cal. 2d 470, 480, 261 P.2d 1 (1953), the objective component of implied malice requires "an act that involves a high degree of probability that it will result in death." Probability is more than a possibility. There was no bruising or other visible injury to Kauanui's face after the punch other than the skull fracture. It is therefore, uncertain whether the punch itself produced a high degree of probability of death, though Kauanui's head hitting the concrete resulted in death. The Thomas test was not utilized by the majority. The majority only employed the Phillips knowing and conscious disregard for life standard. People v. Phillips, 64 Cal.2d 574, 51 Cal. Rptr. 225, 414 P.2d 353 (1966) (overruled on other grounds). If the Thomas test is to be cast aside, the concurrence would rather do so explicitly, but agrees that the conduct at issue in this case satisfies the Phillips test.
There was not sufficient evidence to convict defendant of second degree murder because there was no evidence supporting the finding that the natural consequences of the punch included death, nor that defendant knew the act was dangerous to life.
To support a finding of malice based on a solitary punch, there must have been aggravating circumstances. No evidence was introduced supporting the assertion that defendant's elevated stance on the curb increased the probability of a fatal blow to Kauanui. Defendant's prior sucker punch conduct also does not establish that in this case a high probability of death existed. The objective test for finding implied malice was never met with sufficient evidence.
Moreover, the subjective test for finding implied malice was not met. The majority relies on the circumstances surrounding the punch allowing a jury to infer the subjective element of implied malice from the objective. The dissent disagrees with the conclusions the majority draws about the objective test and this bears on the dissent's subjective analysis as well. Defendant's urging his friend to fight Kauanui and defendant's callous behavior afterwards do not establish knowledge at the time of the attack that that punch was life-endangering.
The dissent would affirm the Court of Appeals in full.
circumstantial evidence, Constitutional Law, criminal law, finding of substantial evidence, Homicide, implied malice, malice aforethought, murder, second degree felony murder, voluntary manslaughter
People v. Knoller, 41 Ca. 4th 139 (2007).
People v. Blakeley, 23 Cal. 4th 82 (2000).
People v. Johnson, 26 Cal. 3d 557 (1980).
People v. Bean, 46 Cal. 3d 919 (1988).
People v. Stanley, 10 Cal. 4th 764 (1995).
People v. Chun, 45 Cal. 4th 1172 (2009).
People v. Munn, 65 Cal. 211 (1884).
People v. Mears, 142 Cal. App. 2d 198 (1956).
People v. Efstathiou, 47 Cal. App. 2d 441 (1941).
People v. Balcom, 7 Cal. 4th 414 (1994).
People v. Spring, 153 Cal. App. 3d 1199 (1984).
People v. Gray, 37 Cal. 4th 168 (2005).
People v. Ogg, 159 Cal. App. 2d 38 (1958).
People v. Thomas, 41 Cal. 2d 470 (1953).
People v. Phillips, 64 Cal. 2d 574 (1966) (overruled on other grounds in People v. Flood, 18 Cal. 4th 470 (1998)).
People v. Nieto Benitez, 4 Cal. 4th 91 (1992).
People v. Dellinger, 49 Cal. 3d 1212 (1989).
People v. Patterson, 49 Cal.3d 615 (1989).
People v. Hansen, 9 Cal. 4th 300 (1994).
ANNOTATION BY: EUGENIA POLAND