By Bob Grimes and Dana Grimes
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.
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 a murder case 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 was People v. Watson, in which the California Supreme Court upheld a conviction for 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.
In sentencing Seth Cravens to 20 years to life (he got 15 to life for the second degree murder of Kauanui and a consecutive 5 years for a separate felony assault on a different victim), Judge Einhorn ruled that the evidence was sufficient to support the allegation of the district attorney that in striking Kauanui, Cravens acted with a conscious disregard for danger to human life, and the judge ruled that the jury’s verdict of second degree murder was warranted.
In June, 2010, Eric House, Orlando Osuna, and Matthew Yanke were back in court to be sentenced on probation violations. They had violated the order of the court that they not associate with each other (among other things, two of them had been seen together in a bar). Another violation of probation was failing drug tests. The three defendants pleaded for another chance, but Judge Einhorn declined to reinstate their probation. The judge told them that when he originally placed them on probation instead of sending them to state prison, they had received the break of a lifetime. “You guys blew it,” the judge told them, and sentenced each of them to three years in state prison. The fifth defendant, Hank Hendricks, who had pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact and placed on probation in June of 2008, was not accused of violating his probation, and it appears that he will complete his probation.
In November of 2010, The Fourth District Court of Appeals, Division Two, reversed Craven’s conviction for second degree murder. The court ruled that there was insufficient evidence of implied malice, since a single blow to the head, with a fist, does not involve a high probability of death simply because it occurs on pavement. There was evidence at trial that Cravens had assaulted other people, but that was not sufficient for a finding of implied malice because none of those assaults had resulted in injuries “even close to life threatening.” The case was sent back to Judge Einhorn for sentencing on the remaining counts. Cravens’ trial lawyer, Mary Ellen Attridge, believes that his sentence will likely be in the range of 11 years to 16 years (because it is a crime of violence, his good conduct credits will be limited to 15%). However, the California Supreme Court has granted a review. They could affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals, or they could reinstate the conviction of second degree murder.
On Jan 30, 2012- In a 6-1 decision, the California Supreme Court overruled the decision of the court of appeals, and reinstated the sentence of 20 years to life. The majority decision was joined by our new Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, and place great emphasis on the fact the Cravens had a history of sucker punching people. Justice Kinnard wrote a dissenting opinion, agreeing with the analysis of the court of appeals that since none of these prior sucker punches had caused serious injury, they do not indicate that Cravens should have believed that hitting someone with one punch created a high probability of death.
This decision by the Supreme Court could support other second degree murder prosecutions against defendants who hit someone with a bare fist, where death results. On the other hand, the Cravens decision could be used in the defense of defendants charged with murder for shooting an unarmed person who posed an immediate threat of violence to them. The use of deadly force in self defense is justified only when the defendant is in imminent fear of death or great bodily injury, but in the Cravens case the Supreme Court has held that one blow from a fist can, in some circumstances, be force likely to cause death. There are going to be future murder trials in which the defendant used a deadly weapon to kill an assailant who was armed only with his fists, and the defense is going to argue that the use of the deadly weapon was justified because the alleged victim’s fist were deadly force. Whether this defense succeeds will depend on the facts of each case, including the size and strength of the combatants, who was the aggressor, and many other case specific facts. However, the Supreme Court decision in Cravens is going to be quoted by the defense to the trial judge, in determining how to instruct the jury on law of self defense, in future homicide cases where defendants have shot or stabbed an unarmed assailant.