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Brief Fact Summary. Knoller had two dogs which attacked and killed a neighbor, Whipple, in their apartment building. Knoller was convicted of second-degree murder because the jury found that she had implied malice since she disregarded a number of warnings about the extreme danger her dogs posed in the form of severe bodily harm or death to a person.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. (1) To be convicted for second-degree murder which is based on a theory of implied malice, it must be proved that the defendant had a conscious or willful disregard of danger to human life.
(2) When a second-degree murder gets a new trial based on a theory of implied malice, the court misuses its discretion by requiring that the defendant must be proved to know that there was a high chance of resulting death to others from the conduct of the defendant.
Issue. (1) For a conviction of second-degree murder based on the evidence of implied malice, is it necessary to prove that the defendant’s actions showed a conscious disregard of danger to another person’s life?
(2) Is it an abuse of discretion when a court grants a new trial for second-degree murder based on evidence of implied malice, and makes it necessary to prove that the defendant knew his actions posed a high risk of death to another?
Held. (1) Yes. (1) To be convicted for second-degree murder which is based on a theory of implied malice, it must be proved that the defendant had a conscious or willful disregard of danger to human life. Second-degree murder refers to the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought, but lacking the elements such as having the determination, pre-planning and voluntary intent to commit harm which are found in first-degree murder. The malice or intent to harm another can be express or implied. Express malice, the explicit intention to cause harm, is missing in this case, but implied malice is shown by the circumstances. Under the law, killing done by a person with an abandoned (void of good feeling) and malignant (having evil feeling) heart is implied malice. While the definition is not clear, two lines of legal pleading have developed to clarify its meaning in order for a jury to apply it. Both lines make it clear that a defendant under this definition must know that his conduct poses risk to another. The clearer of these two lines make the jury instruction include the teaching that implied malice demands that the killing be proximately due to an act which would in the ordinary course of nature lead to dangerously life-threatening consequences, and that the doer deliberately perform the act with the knowledge in that it held that the defendant needs to be aware of the risk of causing serious bodily harm to another. This is demanding an objective component of proof rather than the legal requirement of subjective mental state on the defendant’s part. This part of the verdict is reversed.
(2) Yes. When a second-degree murder gets a new trial based on a theory of implied malice, the court misuses its discretion by requiring that the defendant must be proved to know that there was a high chance of resulting death to others from the conduct of the defendant. The new trial was granted because of the error in understanding the term “implied malice.” The trial defined it as meaning that the killer subjectively knows that her action will very probably result in death to another human being. This viewpoint combines the roles of objective and subjective evidence of implied malice into one and leads to confusion. The subjective proof of implied malice indicates that the defendant consciously ignored the threat to human life, whereas it is the objective component which asks for the knowledge that death would be a very probable result of her action. The combination of these components of implied malice makes the trial court’s definition an erroneous one, and therefore a new trial based on this definition is an abuse of discretion. The case is remanded for re-consideration on the basis of this opinion.
Discussion. The reconsideration of the case resulted in Knoller’s conviction being upheld, with a sentence of 15 years to life being imposed. In California and in most other jurisdictions, the standard of proof required is that a defendant subjectively know he is posing an unacceptable risk of human death by his action, to be convicted for second-degree murder based on implied malice, also called a “depraved- heart murder.” In a minority of states only is the standard lower, requiring only reasonable evidence that the defendant should have known the risk his conduct was posing.