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The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that the killing of a fetus constitutes second-degree murder, even if the accused had no idea the expectant mother was pregnant. The 6-1 ruling strengthens a 34-year-old state law that holds murder defendants accountable for two killings if a mother and her fetus are slain. The decision overturns an appeal court ruling that said fetal murder could be charged only if the defendant was aware of the pregnancy. “By engaging in the conduct he did,” Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote for the majority, “defendant demonstrated a conscious disregard for all life, fetal or otherwise, and hence is liable for all deaths caused by his conduct.” Justice Joyce Kennard dissented, arguing that the state Legislature intended second-degree murder to apply only if there was implied malice toward a particular fetus or fetuses, not life in general. “Under the majority’s rule,” she wrote, “when one commits an act directed at a female victim and does so with an awareness that it carries a substantial risk to her life, that mental state suffices to establish implied malice murder of a fetus in her womb whose existence is neither apparent nor known.” The court’s ruling came five days after President Bush signed legislation — commonly called Laci and Connor’s Law — making it a separate federal crime to hurt an unborn child while assaulting the mother. That law allows federal prosecution for crimes committed against a fetus “at any stage of development,” whereas current California law — under which Scott Peterson is being prosecuted for the 2002 deaths of his wife, Laci, and unborn boy, Connor — limits charges to fetuses of seven to eight weeks or older. Both the state and federal laws bar prosecutions for abortions. In Monday’s case, Harold Taylor was sentenced to 65 years to life in prison after Mendocino County jurors found him guilty of the 1999 shooting death of his former girlfriend, Patty Fansler, and the subsequent death of her 11- to 13-week-old fetus. Court records indicate that neither Taylor nor Fansler, a 200-pound woman, were aware of the pregnancy. Therefore, Taylor argued, he could not be guilty of second-degree murder of the unborn child. San Francisco’s 1st District Court of Appeal agreed in 2002, holding that the “undetectable early pregnancy … was too latent and remote a risk factor” to bear on Taylor’s “liability or the gravity of his offense.” The Supreme Court said the appeal court got it wrong. “When a defendant commits an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to human life, with a conscious disregard for life in general, he acts with implied malice towards those he ends up killing,” Justice Brown wrote. “There is no requirement the defendant specifically know of the existence of each victim.” Brown, using a hypothetical that had been introduced during oral arguments in January, compared the death of Fansler’s unborn baby with that of a child concealed by blankets being killed during a shooting rampage. “Had one of Fansler’s other children died during defendant’s assault,” she wrote, “there would be no inquiry into whether defendant knew the child was present for implied malice murder liability to attach.” Oakland, Calif., solo practitioner Joseph Shipp, who represented Taylor, couldn’t be reached for comment. San Francisco-based Deputy Attorney General Ross Moody, meanwhile, said he was pleased with the ruling and that it was “consistent with the Legislature’s intent.” He also said that the ruling would likely have the most impact in drunken-driving cases. “If you are out there driving while pregnant,” he said, “and someone ends up killing you and your fetus, there should be some protection for that.” Neither abortion-rights proponents nor pro-life groups — which took opposite sides on last week’s federal legislation — weighed in on the California case. The ruling is People v. Taylor, 04 C.D.O.S. 2890.

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