Fetal Homicide Law Applicable Even If Perpetrator Was Unaware of Pregnancy, California Supreme Court Rules
The state's fetal homicide law, which allows prosecutors to charge someone with the death of a fetus when a pregnant woman is attacked or killed, applies even in cases where the assailant is unaware of the woman's pregnancy, the California Supreme Court ruled on Monday, the Los Angeles Times reports (Dolan, Los Angeles Times, 4/6). The case involves Harold Taylor, who in March 1999 fatally shot Patty Fansler, who was 11 to 13 weeks pregnant at the time. Taylor was convicted of second-degree murder of Fansler and her fetus and sentenced to 65 years to life in prison. However, lawyers for Taylor appealed the conviction, arguing that he could not be convicted of fetal homicide because he did not know Fansler was pregnant (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/6). A state appeals court in 2002 overturned the conviction for fetal homicide, saying that Taylor only could be convicted if he had known that Fansler was pregnant. According to the appeals court, "there is not an iota of evidence" that Taylor had "acted with disregard of a fetal life" (Murphy, New York Times, 4/6).
However, the state Supreme Court in a 6-1 decision ruled that knowledge of the pregnancy was not necessary to demonstrate disregard for fetal life, Los Angeles Times reports. Justice Janice Rogers Brown said in the majority decision, "When a defendant commits an act ... with a conscious disregard for life in general, he acts with implied malice toward those he ends up killing," adding, "There is no requirement the defendant specifically know the existence of each victim" (Los Angeles Times, 4/6). In a dissenting opinion, Justice Joyce Kennard said that the state law is "unclear" about the required mental state of the assailant, according to the New York Times (New York Times, 4/6). Kennard added that the state law was "susceptible to two equally reasonable constructions" (AP/Washington Times, 4/6). Kennard also said that legislators failed to amend the state's manslaughter laws in addition to the state's murder laws and that the "discrepancy suggests that the Legislature did not intend to equate the killing of a fetus with the killing of a human being," according to the Los Angeles Times.
Deputy Attorney General Ross Moody said the court's ruling is the "first in which an appeals court has recognized that a fetus can be murdered" even when the assailant is unaware of the pregnancy, the Los Angeles Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 4/6). National Right to Life Committee Legislative Director Douglas Johnson said that the California court ruling "will deter many attacks, including many attacks on women and girls who are not actually pregnant." Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, said that the decision "makes a murkier line for justice" in cases involving crimes committed against pregnant women, according to the New York Times (New York Times, 4/6).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.