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People v. Knoller

    Citation. Cal. Sup. Ct. 41 4th 139, 59 Cal. Rptr. 3d 157, 158 P.3d 731 (2007)

    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.

    Facts. Knoller (P) brought two large PresaCanario dogs, which are fierce combat or watch dogs, over 100 pounds and these also were known for preying on sheep and other animals, of which the Knollers were warned. They were also warned by a vet that the dogs were a liability since this type of dog had attacked a boy a little while before, causing the loss of the boy’s arm and mutilation of his face. The Knollers were thinking of starting up a commercial dog-breeding business called “Dog-O-War”, and one of the dogs was called “Bringer of Death; Ruin; Destruction”. The dogs threatened other humans or dogs, or were otherwise out of control, around 30 times in less than a year. The Knollers treated these complaints about other dogs being threatened with indifference. Afterwards, the dogs fatally mauled Whipple, a neighbor across the hall. Another neighbor who heard her cries for help called 911, and she also heard a voice yelling, “No, no, no” and “Get off.” The emergency team found typical predatory animal injuries on the injured Whipple – lacerations of the jugular vein and carotid artery and crushing of the larynx, among 77 separate injuries. She succumbed in a short time. Knoller faced a charge of second-degree murder on the ground of implied malice. She pleaded that she was not aware that the dogs were vicious as she had not read any literature on them, she had not noticed anything wrong with their personalities and she had neither received nor ignored warnings about their threatening behavior. Thus, she stated, she never had reasonable ground to expect that the dogs would kill anybody. The jury received court instruction that to find a verdict of guilty, they would have to find that she was aware that her actions posed a high probability of death to another person. The jury found her guilty, but the court found that she lacked the necessary knowledge and so granted a new trial. The intermediate court of appeals reversed the verdict on the ground that implied malice requires only that a defendant consciously ignore the risk of serious bodily injury to another. The case was remanded to the trial court. Knoller appealed, and the case was reviewed by the state supreme court.

    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.

    Dissent. N/A

    Concurrence. N/A

    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.


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