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Jan. 8, 2024

Watson murder trial defendants face an 'all or nothing' argument

Dmitry Gorin

Partner, Eisner Gorin LLP

Alan Eisner

Partner, Eisner Gorin LLP

Robert Hill

Associate, Eisner Gorin LLP

Prosecutors regularly charge implied-malice Watson murder charges in driving death cases, where there is evidence of extremely reckless conduct involving speed, alcohol/controlled substances, or both. Notable recent local cases with implied malice murder charges include the tragic deaths of four Pepperdine students, and the accident involving the owner of Moonshadows and his son.

By charging murder, instead of manslaughter with gross negligence, the government makes a deliberate choice to seek a 15-life sentence per each victim. The recent People v. Lagunas decision upholds the prosecutor’s charging discretion, and does not provide an out for the defendant to argue for a lesser related, non-murder charge in order to avoid a life sentence.

On Dec. 12, 2023, the Fourth District Court of Appeals published its opinion in People v. Lagunas, an appeal from a second-degree murder conviction. Lagunas challenged the sufficiency of the evidence and, as relevant here, the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on a lesser related offense. The Court of Appeals found no error and affirmed the conviction.

Lagunas was driving under the influence of alcohol in a residential area when he accelerated through a turn, lost control, and struck and killed a 6-year-old girl playing on the sidewalk. The prosecution elected to charge him only with a single count of second degree implied malice murder, which is commonly known as Watson murder after a 1981 California appellate case of the same name. Watson held that malice may be implied when a person drives under the influence of alcohol and kills someone. There, the driver was found to have a .23% blood alcohol concentration in his blood, almost three times the legal limit, ran a stop sign at 70 miles per hour, and had narrowly avoided causing another collision moments earlier when running a red light. Those factors allowed the Watson court to find that the driver had shown conscious disregard for the value of human life and could therefore be convicted of murder, rather than the lesser offense of vehicular manslaughter.

Following Watson, courts sentencing DUI defendants routinely provide a “Watson advisement” or “Watson admonition” to the effect of, “Driving under the influence of alcohol is inherently dangerous to human life. If you continue to drive under the influence and someone is killed as a result, you may be charged with murder.” This advisement is designed to prevent defendants with prior DUI convictions from arguing that they lacked implied malice when they subsequently kill someone while again driving under the influence. While it is more common for a Watson murder to be charged against a defendant with a prior DUI, it is certainly not required. Even on a first offense, DUI driving is often found to be sufficient to sustain a murder charge when some or all of the following factors is present: (1) high BAC; (2) a pre-drinking intent to drive; (3) knowledge of the hazards of driving while intoxicated; and (4) highly dangerous driving. In Lagunas’ case, all four factors were present, making the sufficiency of the evidence challenge easy to resolve in the government’s favor.

Lagunas’ more interesting challenge was to the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, a form of aggravated felony DUI. While a trial court is required to instruct on lesser included offenses, it is not required to instruct on lesser related offenses without the agreement of the prosecutor. The distinction turns on whether the elements sufficiently overlap such that a defendant could not legally commit the greater offense without also being guilty of the lesser offense. The California Supreme Court already decided this question in People v. Sanchez, a 2001 case, by noting that gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated includes two additional elements not required for a murder conviction, namely use of a vehicle and intoxication. The statutes are therefore related, but are not lesser and greater versions of one another.

Lagunas acknowledged Sanchez, but argued that the legislature must have intended vehicular manslaughter to be a lesser included offense of murder by the plain meaning of the word “manslaughter.” The Court of Appeals found no persuasive legislative history to suggest that the vehicular manslaughter statute was intended to operate as a lesser included offense of murder. To the contrary, Section 191.5 of the Penal Code, describing gross vehicular manslaughter, explicitly states that nothing in that section is to be construed as prohibiting a murder charge, citing Watson. The court also noted that in the two decades following Sanchez, the legislature apparently assented to its holding by taking no action to clarify or modify the relationship between the two statutes.

Lagunas finally argued that since courts are typically required to instruct on involuntary manslaughter, a homicide without malice, in a murder case, it would offend equal protection principles to treat vehicular manslaughter differently. The court rejected this argument because, even assuming the Watson murder defendants are treated differently than other murder defendants in this respect, that discriminatory treatment is rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest to impose harsh punishment and effect deterrence on individuals who drive while intoxicated.

In a footnote, the court rebuffed what appears to have been the real thrust of Lagunas’ frustration with the trial court. Lagunas argued that, “Criminal courts are not supposed to be gambling halls where juries are faced with all or nothing verdicts,” alleging that the prosecution “engineered an all or nothing case by only charging second degree murder, betting that no jury would let appellant walk free after causing the death of an innocent little girl.” The Court of Appeals replied that it did not take “a position on this oft-raised argument, but we are publishing this opinion to make clear that this argument is more properly directed to the Legislature.” In other words, if you don’t like it, call your congressperson.


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