This editors of this first case omitted the analysis and holding but focuses on the common law approach to malice aforethought. I believe the principle they are trying to prove is that the common law approach is so complicated by the several definitions we have for “implied malice”. In other words, the editors are presenting several positions and asking us to think about what might be best.

Below, the brief focus only on the fact and how the court decided on which case to base their rule off of.

People v. Knoller

41 Cal. 4th 139 (2007).


What is implied malice?


Implied malice is when the the proximate killing is caused by:

  • An act, dangerous to life
  • Performed by person who knows the conduct endangers the life of another
  • Acts with conscious disregard for life.

Consequently, implied malice requires the defendant’s awareness that their actions has the risk of death.


Knoller was an attorney who was working with some prison inmates. These inmates were part of a prison gang that bred “War Dogs” for the use of guarding, attacking, and fighting. At one point, some of these dogs were in the possession of another. They escaped and killed a sheep. The defendants sued and took possession of the dogs. They were warned by the previous owner and a vet, that the dogs were extremely large and dangerous (“would be a liability in any household”). The defendants shrugged it off and took the dogs home with them.

For several months the dogs acted aggressively towards their neighbors (30+ times) and the defendants acted indifferently towards the complaints. One day, the victim came home early from work and was attacked by one of the dogs in the hallway, resulting in her death. Nobody else was in the hall, and the person who called 911 was scared to open the door to help.

Knoller was sued with second degree murder. Her defense was that the dog had never exhibited any aggressive behavior and she was shocked that the animal was capable of doing such a thing.


The court considered several definitions for implied malice. Because implied malice is required here to gain a conviction under the common law approach. One way to think about implied malice is that the person opens the cage to the lion at the zoo. There is such a lack of moral concern that it renders it their intent to kill, even if there was no intent.

Was Knoller in the wrong? I say yes, no doubt. Is she guilty of second degree murder? I don’t understand the principle well enough to say for sure.

Additional Notes

Knoller was charged with second degree murder and her husband, Noel was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

This case is under the common law approach. Here, murder is defined as being with malice aforethought. Malice can also be implied here (“Circumstances indicate an abandoned & malignant heart”). What is a malignant heart? There are two potential options. Thomas says that it is a wanton disregard for human life. Phillips says when a person acts with conscious disregard for life. Here, the court accepts the Phillips test saying that a person must act with conscious disregard to show malice.

However, those who are conducting surgeries may have a conscious that the risk of surgery may actually result in death. So, why is the defendant in this case is guilty of murder when surgeons are not? Because surgeons are regarding human life, not disregarding it, these cases are different.

If the defendants here were not guilty of murder, they would have been guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Because they were at least reckless or grossly negligent.

If someone shows concern afterwards then it could have been inferred that they had concern before.

Conscious disregard can be compared to extreme recklessness. In words of an equation Conscious Disregard = Reckless ++

How does this compare to the MPC? If you can show that there was an extreme indifference, then the jury will decide if it is extreme recklessness (murder) or just reckless (manslaughter).

State v. Williams

4 Wash. App. 908 (1971).

Husband and wife Williams are the defendants. They were charged and convicted with manslaughter (common law). They appealed.


Were they guilty of manslaughter because of their negligence to obtain medical aid?


Under common law approach ordinary negligence is not enough, there needs to be gross negligence to establish manslaughter. However, in Washington (present case), ordinary negligence resulting in the death of another is enough to establish manslaughter.

Ordinary Negligence is:

  • Failure to exercise ordinary caution (reasonable prudent person)


There was negligence, the parties are guilty of manslaughter


The defendants are Native Americans we had and loved a young infant. However, the infant became ill. The defendants were scared to go to a doctor to seek medical help because they were afraid that the child would be taken from them (recent welfare law). They determined that it was just a toothache, gave the child aspirin, and expected the child to recover. Instead, the child passed.

An autopsy was performed which discovered that the child had become ill two weeks before the death, and would not have been saved if the defendants had brought in the child within a week of the child’s death.


The court then needs to consider the time between the when the child first became ill and the time where recovery would not have been possible to see if the parents were negligent.

Here, they were negligent because the defendants did notice the symptoms even if they did not realize how serious they were. Despite this, the defendants had access to, and the financial ability to reach a doctor. A reasonably prudent person would have seen the symptoms and taken the infant to the hospital.

Therefore, there was negligence and they are guilty of manslaughter.


The above case is a sad story where we examine causation and mens rea. Had the symptoms occurred after the child was not able to be saved, there would not have been causation. The mens rea is negligence, even if the defendants did not realize that they were negligent. How do we reconcile this case with those who are in similar situations (fail to provide medical attention) but instead fail to watch for symptoms instead of not recognizing symptoms?

Additional Case Notes

Charged with manslaughter, using a common law approach in Washington. Definition here is ordinary negligence (tort) whereas most of the time it is grossly negligent (criminal).

Thus, under the common law approach of Washington, they were guilty

Under the MPC approach, they would not have been guilty of murder or manslaughter or negligent homicide. This is because they did not commit gross negligence, only simple negligence.

Additional Notes

Under the MPC, there are 3 difference kinds of unintentional homicides:

  1. Murder (Reckless ++ – Extreme indifference to human life)
  2. Manslaughter (reckless – substantial & unjustifiable risk)
  3. Negligent Homicide (should be aware + gross deviation)

Under Pennsylvania Common Law there are three different kinds of unintentional homicides:

  1. Murder (third degree – All other kinds of murder (i.e. not premeditated, not during felony))
    • Conscious disregard = malice = murder of third degree
  2. Involuntary Manslaughter (Reckless or grossly negligent)


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

Categories: 1L Fall, Criminal Law

Will Laursen

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