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People v. Smith

    Citation. 35 Cal. 3d 798, 678 P.2d 886,201 Cal. Rptr. 311, 1984 Cal. 166.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant was convicted of both felony child abuse and second-degree murder after beating her two-year-old daughter to death.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Where the conduct constituting a felony is the sole cause of death, i.e. assault, the felony “merges” with the homicide into a single crime.

    Facts. The Defendant and her two daughters, Bethany, age three and a half, and Amy, age two, lived with David Foster. On the date in question, the Defendant took Amy into her bedroom after Amy disobeyed her. The Defendant spanked Amy and slapped her in the face. The Defendant hit Amy repeatedly, knocking her to the floor. Foster apparently joined in the beating to “assist” in Amy’s discipline. Eventually, the Defendant knocked Amy backwards. She fell, hitting her head on the closet door. Amy stiffened and went into respiratory arrest. The Defendant and Foster took her to the hospital where she died that evening.

    Issue. Was the Defendant properly convicted of both felony child abuse and second-degree murder?

    Held. No.
    The offense of felony child abuse can occur by virtue of both active and passive conduct, i.e. by direct assault or neglect. In each case, the conduct must be willful and the conduct must be committed “under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death.”

    A person is guilty of felony murder if a death occurs in the course of a commission of a felony. However, where the felony is an integral part of the homicide, one cannot be guilty of both the felony and felony murder, but rather, the crimes merge into the single crime of murder.

    Here, the Defendant willfully inflicted physical pain on a child. Said conduct was the basis of the felony child abuse charge and was in turn the conduct that caused her death. Therefore, the merger rule applies, and the Defendant cannot be guilty of both the felony child abuse and murder.


    Discussion. The “merger” doctrine forbids conviction of both a felony and a murder if the felony relates to conduct that directly causes the death. For example, if a person robs another and then beats him to death, he cannot be convicted of both assault and murder since the assault led to the murder. However, he can be convicted of both robbery and murder since the conduct leading to the robbery charge was separate and distinct from the conduct causing the murder.


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