What type of action warrants a punishment as severe as 45 years in jail? Of the many crimes that come to mind, I doubt you thought of a single punch. However, on January 3, 2020, the California Court of Appeals upheld the People v Palomar ruling, which sentenced a man to 45 years in jail for a single punch.
The facts of the case were mostly undisputed. The victim, who was intoxicated inside of a bar, expressed derogatory comments about the assailant’s female cousin. Once the assailant approached the intoxicated man, the man began to make racist remarks directed at the assailant. By the end of the night, the assailant, waiting for the drunk man to leave the bar, retaliated by sucker-punching the man only once. With one punch, the victim died by losing balance from the blow and hitting his head on a nearby curb.
While the assailant’s defense attorney argued for involuntary manslaughter, a crime with a significantly shorter prison sentence, the jury sided with the prosecutor’s argument that the assailant committed second degree murder. How did an act that seemed to be caused out of the heat of the moment become second degree murder? The answer relies on the doctrine of implied malice. For second degree murder, there must be apparent malice aforethought. Malice is defined in two ways, expressed and implied. Expressed malice reflects our conventional conception of murder, i.e., “when a defendant manifests a deliberate intention to take away the life of a fellow creature.” (Cravens, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 507.) Alternatively, implied malice requires a physical component, “the performance of ‘an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life,” and a mental component, “the requirement that the defendant ‘knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and . . . acts with a conscious disregard for life.” (Id. At p. 508.)