The state Supreme Court strengthened California’s fetal-murder law Monday, declaring that the killing of a pregnant woman counts as two homicides even if the perpetrator was unaware the victim was pregnant.
The 6-1 decision overturns a 2002 lower court ruling that said a killer must know the victim was pregnant to be guilty of murdering the fetus.
California’s fetal-murder law was passed by the Legislature in 1970. The law is being used to prosecute Scott Peterson in the deaths of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son. More than two dozen states have passed various versions of a fetal-murder law.
President Bush signed similar legislation last week to make it a crime to kill a fetus during the commission of a federal offense, and that law does not require knowledge of the pregnancy. Both the federal legislation and California’s law exempt the killing of a fetus during an abortion.
The Legislature adopted the fetal-murder law after the state Supreme Court overturned the fetal-murder conviction of a Stockton man who, while beating his estranged wife, killed her unborn child. At the time, the court said California’s murder law did not recognize a fetus.
California’s justices reached Monday’s conclusion two years after a state appeals court overturned the fetal-murder conviction of Harold Taylor, a Vietnam veteran found guilty of murdering his former lover, who was at least 10 weeks pregnant.
On appeal, Taylor claimed he did not know Patty Fansler was pregnant, and he argued that he could not be prosecuted for murdering her fetus, which died when Taylor shot and killed the woman in 1999.
The lower court agreed, ruling that murder in California requires “malice aforethought” — a willful intent to take the life of another — and a “conscious disregard” for life.
In reinstating Taylor’s fetal-murder conviction, Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown said Taylor “did not need to be specifically aware how many potential victims his conscious disregard for life endangered.”
Because of the ruling, Taylor’s 40-year prison term for killing the woman and other offenses is expected to be increased by 25 years, prosecutors said.
In dissent, Justice Joyce L. Kennard endorsed the lower court decision, saying California’s fetal-murder law was vague and “susceptible to two equally reasonable constructions.”
California’s law applies to fetuses beyond eight weeks of gestation. The federal rule applies to an unborn child “at any stage of development.”