Involuntary Manslaughter Case in California
In People v. Garcia (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 18, the Court of Appeal held that a trial court had not erred in failing to instruct a jury on involuntary manslaughter because the evidence established that the defendant had, at a minimum, killed the victim during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony, namely, an assault with a deadly weapon. (Id. at p. 33.)
The Garcia court reasoned that an unintentional killing without malice committed during the course of an inherently dangerous assaultive felony constitutes voluntary, rather than involuntary, manslaughter. (Id. at pp. 31-33.)
In Garcia, supra, 162 Cal.App.4th at page 22, the Court of Appeal considered whether the trial court had a sua sponte duty to instruct on involuntary manslaughter where there is substantial evidence that the defendant committed an unintentional killing without malice during the course of an inherently dangerous assaultive felony.
The defendant in Garcia struck the victim in the face with the butt of a shotgun, causing the victim to fall and hit his head on the sidewalk. The victim died as a result of the injuries he sustained in the fall. (Ibid.) A jury found the defendant not guilty of murder, but guilty of the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter. (Id. at p. 23.)
The defendant claimed on appeal that the trial court had erred in failing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter because there was substantial evidence that the killing was "committed without malice and without either an intent to kill or conscious disregard for human life and, therefore, was neither murder nor voluntary manslaughter." (Id. at p. 26.)
The Garcia court rejected the defendant's claim. (Garcia, supra, 162 Cal. App.4th at p. 22.)
The Garcia court began its analysis by discussing the distinction between murder and manslaughter: "Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus 'with malice aforethought.' 'Express malice' is an unlawful intent to kill. 'Implied malice' requires a defendant's awareness of engaging in conduct that endangers the life of another. "Malice is implied when the killing is proximately caused by "'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.'"' " (Garcia, supra, at pp. 26-27.)
"Manslaughter is the 'unlawful killing of a human being without malice.' " (Garcia, supra, 162 Cal.App.4th at p. 27.) The Garcia court referred to two well-established theories of voluntary manslaughter, namely, where a defendant lacks malice either because he acts in "unreasonable self-defense" or in the "heat of passion." (Id. at p. 27.)
The Garcia court described the offense of involuntary manslaughter in the following manner:
"The statutory definition of involuntary manslaughter limits the offense, other than for acts committed while driving a vehicle, to the unlawful killing of a human being without malice 'in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony; or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection.' Involuntary manslaughter based on 'an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony'--a killing resulting from the commission of a misdemeanor--requires proof not only that the defendant acted with general criminal intent but also that the predicate misdemeanor was dangerous to human life under the circumstances of its commission. Involuntary manslaughter based on the commission of a lawful act that might produce death 'without due caution and circumspection' requires proof of criminal negligence--that is, 'aggravated, culpable, gross, or reckless' conduct that creates a high risk of death or great bodily injury and that evidences a disregard for human life or indifference to the consequences of the conduct. " (Id. at pp. 27-28.)
The Garcia court observed that California law was not clear as to what homicide offense, if any, is established where a defendant commits an unintentional killing, without malice, during the course of a felony that does not qualify the defendant for either first or second degree felony murder. (Garcia, supra, 162 Cal.App.4th at p. 28.)
After reviewing the relevant case law, including a discussion of second degree felony murder and the "merger doctrine" (id. at p. 29), the Garcia court concluded that "an unlawful killing during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony, even if unintentional, is at least voluntary manslaughter" (162 Cal.App.4th at p. 31).
Garcia thus articulates a third theory of voluntary manslaughter, in addition to the well-established theories of unreasonable self-defense and heat of passion.