Second Degree Murder: From Dog Bites to DUIs
By: Dana M. Grimes, Esq.
Most people think of murder as an intentional act, and that anyone guilty of it must be a cold, calculating killer.
In a murder trial in California, the jury is instructed that murder is the killing of another person with malice aforethought. Malice can be express, when there is the intent to kill, or it can be implied. The concept of implied malice has developed through the years in California. One of the leading cases on implied malice is People v. Watson, in which the California Supreme Court upheld a conviction of second degree murder for a defendant who caused the death of another person while the defendant was driving drunk and in a reckless fashion.
In another leading case in 2007, the California Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Marjorie Knoller (an attorney), after her dogs killed Diane Whipple, in San Francisco. The dogs weighed 100 pounds and 140 pounds and had a history of violence, and the California Supreme Court held that Knoller had shown a conscious disregard for danger to human life. She was sentenced to 15 years to life.
At about 1:00 a.m. on May 24, 2007, Seth Cravens struck Emery Kauanui, Jr. in the face with his left fist. Kauanui fell backwards and his head hit the sidewalk. He suffered a fractured skull and subdural hematoma, and died of these injuries several days later.
This was not mutual combat, and it was not a fair fight. On the other hand, no weapons were involved and there was no intent to kill, so was it murder?
Five defendants of a group that called itself the “Bird Rock Bandits” were involved in this incident, and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office charged them all with charges including second degree murder. Four of them pled guilty before trial. Eric House, Matthew Yanke, and Orlando Osuna pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. House and Yanke were sentenced to 210 days in custody, and Osuna got 349 days. Henri “Hank” Hendricks pled guilty to accessory after the fact, and received 90 days in custody.
Seth Cravens went to trial on the murder charge, as well as other felony counts alleging other violent assaults. His attorney argued that he acted in self defense, and that the one blow he struck with his left hand did not rise to the legal definition of implied malice. This argument was rejected by the jury, which found him guilty of multiple felonies, including second degree murder. On February 2, 2009, San Diego Superior Court Judge John Einhorn sentenced the 23-year-old Cravens to a term of 20 years to life in state prison. He got 15 to life for second degree murder, with a consecutive 5 years for additional assault convictions on different victims.
It is unusual for a defendant to be convicted of murder for a death which results from a fight in which no weapons were involved. Generally, the charge would be involuntary manslaughter, which has a maximum sentence of four years in prison. The primary reason for Cravens’ conviction of murder was the evidence of his prior history of violence. Seth Cravens is from a large and wealthy family (he has 13 brothers and sisters) and lived in the affluent community of La Jolla, but he had a history of assaulting and threatening people going back to his early youth. He was big and strong and athletic. There was evidence that on multiple occasions, he hurt people when he hit them without warning (as he did to Kauanui), or attacked them as part of a group (which he also did with Kauanui).
In August of 2010, House, Yanke, and Osuna were each sentenced to three years in prison for violating their probation, for failing drug tests, and associating with each other.
The Fourth District Court of Appeals, Division Two, reversed Cravens’ conviction of second degree murder. The unanimous three judge panel ruled that a single punch to the head does not involve a high probability of death. The DA argued at Cravens’ trial that Cravens’ knew of the power of his punches because of his previous assaults on other people, but the Court of Appeals pointed out that none of those assaults resulted in injuries that were “even close to life threatening.”
In January, 2012, the California Supreme Court overruled the District Court of Appeals and reinstated Cravens’ conviction of second degree murder. In a 6-1 decision, only the lone dissenter (Justice Kinnard) made any mention of the finding of the Court of Appeals that the injuries from Cravens previous assaults were not even close to life threatening, and therefore did not show that hitting someone one time with a fist has a high probability of death. The new Chief Justice, Tani Cantil Saukaye, and the newest and youngest justice, Goodwin Liu, had no problem with finding this to be murder. The composition of this court is not going to get more liberal in the foreseeable future, at least on homicide cases.
In January of 2014, Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for his negligently causing Michael Jackson’s death by intravenously administering the powerful anesthetic propfol. Involuntary manslaughter is a more common charge in this type of situation than second degree murder, but the definition of the two offenses (and the jury instruction) sound pretty similar, especially to a lay jury. The Los Angeles DA, Jackie Lacey, filed murder charges instead of involuntarily manslaughter charges against Dr. Hsiu-Ying Tseng, for improperly prescribing schedule II controlled substances to many drug abusers, a number of whom died of overdoses. Dr Tseng was convicted of the murder charges as well as over a dozen charges of illegally prescribing controlled substances. She was sentenced to 30 years to life in February of 2016.