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People v. Bryant

Supreme Court of California

June 3, 2013

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
AMALIA CATHERINE BRYANT, Defendant and Appellant.

Superior Court Riverside County No. SWF014495 Ct.App. 4/1 D057570 Timothy F. Freer Judge

Anthony J. Dain, under appointment by the Supreme Court, and Eric R. Larson for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gary W. Schons and Julie L. Garland, Assistant Attorneys General, James H. Flaherty III, Steven T. Oetting, Kristen Kinnaird Chenelia and Lynne McGinnis, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.


During an altercation in an apartment they shared, defendant Amalia Catherine Bryant stabbed her boyfriend once in the chest, killing him. The jury convicted her of second degree murder. On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed the murder conviction, concluding that the trial court erred by failing to sua sponte instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter as a lesser included offense of murder on the theory that defendant killed without malice in the commission of an inherently dangerous assaultive felony. We granted review to decide whether such a theory of voluntary manslaughter exists and whether the trial court should have instructed sua sponte on that theory. We conclude that such a killing is not voluntary manslaughter and that the trial court therefore did not err in failing to so instruct the jury. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal.


On November 24, 2005, neighbors responded to the apartment in which defendant lived with her boyfriend Robert Golden to find defendant screaming and Golden lying facedown in the front doorway. Defendant was pleading with Golden to “wake up.” Golden had a stab wound to the chest and no pulse; he was pronounced dead at the hospital. During two police interviews and in testimony at trial, defendant later recounted what happened. She stated that during a physical altercation, she grabbed a knife from the kitchen and threatened to hurt Golden if he did not let her leave. Golden lunged for the knife, and the two struggled over it. Defendant broke free with the knife in her hand. When Golden then came toward defendant, she made a thrusting motion at him with the knife, and it went into his chest. Defendant claimed she never intended to kill Golden.

The trial court instructed the jury regarding first degree premeditated murder, second degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter based upon heat of passion and unreasonable self-defense, as well as the defense of reasonable self-defense. The jury convicted defendant of second degree murder and found true the allegation that she personally used a deadly weapon. The trial court sentenced defendant to 15 years to life in prison for murder plus a consecutive year for the weapon enhancement.

On appeal, defendant claimed the trial court erred by not sua sponte instructing on involuntary manslaughter as a lesser included offense of murder on the theory that defendant killed unlawfully in the commission of misdemeanor brandishing a weapon or in the commission of a lawful act committed with criminal negligence. The Attorney General responded that defendant’s conduct exceeded brandishing a weapon and that no evidence showed she had performed a lawful act negligently. Thereafter, on its own initiative, the Court of Appeal requested supplemental briefing on the following question: “Did the trial court commit reversible error by not instructing the jury sua sponte that an unintentional killing without malice during the course of [an] inherently dangerous assaultive felony constitutes voluntary manslaughter? (See People v. Garcia (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 18.)” The Court of Appeal instructed the parties to “assume that the People are correct that there is substantial evidence that appellant committed, at a minimum, a felony assault with a deadly weapon (Pen. Code, § 245, subd. (a)(1)).” Defendant argued that the trial court should have the jury instructed on voluntary manslaughter based upon that theory, and that the error was prejudicial. The Attorney General responded that there was no evidentiary basis for the instruction and, alternatively, that any error was harmless. The Court of Appeal reversed defendant’s murder conviction, concluding that “the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter, based on the theory articulated in Garcia.” We granted the Attorney General’s petition for review and now reverse.


Murder is defined as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.” (Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a); all further statutory references are to the Penal Code.) Malice aforethought “may be express or implied. It is express when there is manifested a deliberate intention unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow creature. It is implied, when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.” (§ 188.) As we have noted, the statutory definition of implied malice “is quite vague” and “permits, even requires, judicial interpretation.” (People v. Chun (2009) 45 Cal.4th 1172, 1181 (Chun); see People v. Lasko (2000) 23 Cal.4th 101, 107 (Lasko); People v. Dellinger (1989) 49 Cal.3d 1212, 1217 [“The statutory definition of implied malice has never proved of much assistance in defining the concept in concrete terms.”].) “We have interpreted implied malice as having ‘both a physical and a mental component. The physical component is satisfied by the performance of “an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life.” [Citation.] The mental component is the requirement that the defendant “knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and... acts with a conscious disregard for life.” [Citation.]’ [Citation.]” (Chun, at p. 1181; see People v. Phillips (1966) 64 Cal.2d 574, 587, overruled on another ground in People v. Flood (1998) 18 Cal.4th 470, 490, fn. 12 (Flood).)

“A defendant may also be found guilty of murder under the felony-murder rule. The felony-murder rule makes a killing while committing certain felonies murder without the necessity of further examining the defendant’s mental state.” (Chun, supra, 45 Cal.4th at p. 1182.) “Under the felony-murder doctrine, when the defendant or an accomplice kills someone during the commission, or attempted commission, of an inherently dangerous felony, the defendant is liable for either first or second degree murder, depending on the felony committed. If the felony is listed in section 189, the murder is of the first degree; if not, the murder is of the second degree. [Citations.] Felony-murder liability does not require an intent to kill, or even implied malice, but merely an intent to commit the underlying felony. [Citation.]” (People v. Gonzalez (2012) 54 Cal.4th 643, 654, italics omitted; see Chun, at p. 1182.) “The felony-murder doctrine, whose ostensible purpose is to deter those engaged in felonies from killing negligently or accidentally, operates to posit the existence of that crucial mental state — and thereby to render irrelevant evidence of actual malice or the lack thereof — when the killer is engaged in a felony whose inherent danger to human life renders logical an imputation of malice on the part of all who commit it.” (People v. Satchell (1971) 6 Cal.3d 28, 43, overruled on another ground in Flood, supra, 18 Cal.4th at p. 490, fn. 12.)

Although we affirmed the constitutionality of the second degree felony-murder rule in Chun, we recognized that “the rule has often been criticized and, indeed, described as disfavored.” (Chun, supra, 45 Cal.4th at p. 1188.) As such, we have “restricted its scope in at least two respects to ameliorate its perceived harshness.” (Ibid.) First, the second degree felony-murder rule applies only to felonies inherently dangerous to human life. (People v. Burroughs (1984) 35 Cal.3d 824, 829 (Burroughs); People v. Williams (1965) 63 Cal.2d 452, 457.) Second, we have limited the second degree felony-murder rule through the so-called merger doctrine articulated in People v. Ireland (1969) 70 Cal.2d 522 (Ireland).

In Ireland, we concluded that second degree felony murder could not be predicated upon a killing during the commission of assault with a deadly weapon. We explained: “To allow such use of the felony-murder rule would effectively preclude the jury from considering the issue of malice aforethought in all cases wherein homicide has been committed as a result of a felonious assault — a category which includes the great majority of all homicides. This kind of bootstrapping finds support neither in logic nor in law. We therefore hold that a second degree felony-murder instruction may not properly be given when it is based upon a felony which is an integral part of the homicide and which the evidence produced by the prosecution shows to be an offense included in fact within the offense charged.” (Ireland, supra, 70 Cal.2d at p. 539.) We clarified in Chun that the merger rule applies when “the underlying ...

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