Brief Fact Summary. Defendant Keeler intentionally kicked his ex-wife, Teresa Keeler, in the stomach in an attempt to abort her unborn child which had been fathered by another man. The Defendant was charged with murder and appealed on the issue of whether the killing of an unborn fetus constitutes murder.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A person cannot be convicted for murder if the alleged victim is an unborn fetus.
The defendant is entitled to the benefit of every reasonable doubt as to the true interpretation of words or the construction of language used in a statute.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Is a fetus a “human being” within the meaning of the California murder statute, which provides that “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, with malice aforethought?”
Citing the common law precedent available to the legislature when it enacted the homicide statute in 1850, the Court held that the legislature did not intend that murder include the killing of an unborn fetus. The statute was again enacted in 1872, and nothing happened between 1850 and 1872 to lead the Court to believe that the Legislature intended to include the killing of an unborn fetus in its definition of murder. For the judiciary to enlarge the crime of murder beyond what the Legislature intended would be an unconstitutional usurpation of the legislative powers.
Further, due process requires that the Defendant be made aware that his conduct is criminal. By enlarging the statute to include unborn fetuses, the judiciary would be depriving the Defendant of fair warning. Hence, the Defendant cannot be convicted of the murder of an unborn fetus.
Dissent. If a defendant kills an unborn, but viable, fetus, the offense is murder. The majority’s reliance on common law principles to define murder is improper since the legislature has defined the offense of murder. Further, the Defendant had proper notice that his actions could constitute homicide. It would be absurd to suggest that he would have consulted legal treatises before acting.
Discussion. The holding of this case has been superseded by a statute providing that murder includes the killing of a fetus.