California Law of Implied Malice and Landmark Cases

Second degree murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought, but without the additional elements that it be willful, deliberate and premeditated, which are required for first degree murder. ( 187, subd. (a), 189; People v. Nieto Benitez (1992) 4 Cal.4th 91, 102.) Malice may be implied when a person does " ' " 'an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life, which act was deliberately performed by a person who knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and who acts with conscious disregard for life.' " ' " (People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290, 300 (Watson); see Benitez, at p. 104; People v. Lasko (2000) 23 Cal.4th 101, 107; 188.) Implied malice is determined by examining the defendant's subjective mental state to see if he or she actually appreciated the risk of his or her actions. (People v. Dellinger (1989) 49 Cal.3d 1212, 1217; Watson, supra, 30 Cal.3d at pp. 296-297.) Malice may be found even if the act results in a death that is accidental. (People v. Contreras (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 944, 954 (Contreras).) It is unnecessary that implied malice be proven by an admission or other direct evidence of the defendant's mental state; like all other elements of a crime, implied malice may be proven by circumstantial evidence. (People v. James (1998) 62 Cal.App.4th 244, 277.) California has followed the above rule of implied malice in vehicular homicide cases. The California Supreme Court has stated that when "the facts demonstrate a subjective awareness of the risk created, malice may be implied. In such cases, a murder charge is appropriate." (Watson, supra, 30 Cal.3d at p. 298.) While many of the published vehicular homicide cases, including Watson, involved an intoxicated defendant or a high-speed chase, "the absence of intoxication or high speed flight from pursuing officers does not preclude a finding of malice." (Contreras, supra, 26 Cal.App.4th at p. 955.) Indeed, the California courts have recognized that there is no particular formula for analysis of vehicular homicide cases, instead requiring a case-by-case approach. (People v. Olivas (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 984, 989; People v. McCarnes (1986) 179 Cal.App.3d 525, 535.)