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California Supreme Court uphold conviction for murder of human “fetus” even if pregnancy unknown

Apr 5, 2004 | 2004 Press Releases

WASHINGTON (April 5, 2004) – By a vote of 6-1, the California Supreme Court on April 5 upheld a murder conviction of a man who shot a pregnant woman to death, and then argued that he had not known she was pregnant.

Harold Taylor was convicted of two counts of murder in the 1999 shooting deaths of Patty Fensler and her 11-week to 13-week-old unborn child.  A state appeals court reversed the fetal homicide conviction, saying the law did not apply to Taylor because he was not aware of the pregnancy.  The California Supreme Court reinstated the conviction, ruling that it is not necessary for the state to prove that an attacker knew of the existence of a fetal victim, as long as the state proves criminal intent towards some victim. 

Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote for the six-justice majority:  “Had one of Fansler’s other children died during defendant’s assault, there would be no inquiry into whether defendant knew the child was present for implied malice murder liability to attach.  Similarly, there is no principled basis on which to require defendant to know Fansler was pregnant to justify an implied malice murder conviction as to her fetus.  In battering and shooting Fansler, defendant acted with knowledge of the danger to and conscious disregard for life in general.  That is all that is required for implied malice murder.  He did not need to be specifically aware how many potential victims his conscious disregard for life endangered.”

NRLC Federal Legislative Director Douglas Johnson commented, “This ruling makes clear that under California law, as under the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act, if criminal intent towards one victim is proved, a criminal will be held responsible for the harm he does to other victims as well, including unborn children.  This legal doctrine will serve to deter many attacks, including many attacks on women and girls who are not actually pregnant.”

The case was People v. Harold Wayne Taylor.  The opinions of the California Supreme Court are posted here.

The California Supreme Court ruling is the latest in a long line of federal and state court decisions rejecting legal attacks on state fetal homicide laws. For example, in 1990, the Minnesota Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in upholding the two-homicide indictment of a man for killing a woman who was found, during an autopsy, to be about one month pregnant.  The Minnesota court held:  “The possibility that a female homicide victim of childbearing age may be pregnant is a possibility that an assaulter may not safely exclude.”  (State v. Merrill)

A summary of all known pertinent rulings by other courts is posted on the NRLC website at http://nrlc.org///federal/unbornvictims/statechallenges

The federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act, signed into law by President Bush on April 1, recognizes a “child in utero” as a second victim when he or she is injured during commission of a federal or military crime.  The new federal law explicitly says that it “does not require proof that the person engaging in the conduct had knowledge or should have had knowledge that the victim of the underlying offense was pregnant; or the defendant intended to cause the death of, or bodily injury to, the unborn child.”  

Senator John Kerry voted against the federal bill.

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