What is a "Watson Murder" in California?
A "Watson murder" is a legal concept in California that refers to a specific type of second-degree murder charge associated with fatal accidents resulting from driving under the influence (DUI).
Simply put, a Watson murder is a DUI causing death and a form of California Penal Code 187 PC second-degree murder. It's an implied malice murder while driving under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or a combination of both.
The critical question in Watson murder cases is whether the intoxicated driver acted with implied malice, which is a legal term defining a mental state less than actual intent to kill but still blameworthy enough that a murder charge could be sustained.
If not, a Watson murder charge cannot be sustained, and the intoxicated driver would likely be guilty of the lesser offense of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (Penal Code 191.5(b) PC) or gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
To convict you, the prosecution must prove you committed an act causing the death of another person, had a state of mind called malice aforethought, and killed without lawful justification.
Malice aforethought can be either express or implied and prosecutors will rely on evidence showing you exhibited implied malice.
The term “Watson murder” is a reference to the landmark case People v. Watson, where the courts ruled that DUI resulting in death could be charged as second-degree murder (Penal Code 187 PC) rather than gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (Penal Code 191.5(a) PC).
It's a serious offense that carries significant legal consequences. If prosecutors are successful in convicting you of the Watson murder, your DUI could result in 15 years to life in prison.
What are the Origins of the Watson Murder?
As noted, the Watson murder charge derives its name from the 1981 California Supreme Court case People v. Watson. In this case, Robert Watson was convicted of second-degree murder following a fatal car accident caused by his drunk driving.
The court ruled that Watson had acted with "implied malice"—a crucial component of second-degree murder—even though he did not intend to kill anyone.
This ruling set a precedent for treating certain DUI cases as potential murder cases. By treating DUI-causing death as second-degree murder, the courts are essentially saying that the accused intentionally acted with conscious disregard for human life.
This introduces a higher degree of culpability compared to vehicular manslaughter, which typically involves negligence or recklessness but not necessarily an intent to cause harm.
When Can a DUI be Charged as Murder?
In California, the District Attorney can file murder charges under the following circumstances:
- The defendant has at least one prior conviction for DUI and
- The defendant attended DUI school or was read a “Watson admonition” related to the prior offense.
A “Watson admonition” is a warning given to California defendants driving under the influence. It tells them that DUI is extremely dangerous to human life and that a subsequent conviction could lead to murder charges.
What Is Implied Malice?
Proving a Watson murder charge largely hinges on the concept of implied malice. which refers to when a person's actions are so dangerous that they must have known they were risking the lives of others, even if they did not explicitly intend to cause harm.
In the context of DUI, this means that the driver understood the risks associated with driving while intoxicated but chose to do so anyway, resulting in a fatal accident. Thus, a defendant acts with implied malice when:
- They intentionally commit an act of driving under the influence,
- The natural and probable consequences are dangerous to human life,
- The defendant knew the act was dangerous to human life and
- The defendant deliberately acts with conscious disregard for human life.
Notably, the prosecutor's difficulty is proving that the driver acted with a “conscious disregard for human life.”
How is Implied Malice Proven?
Suppose you're charged with a DUI that resulted in a fatality. In that case, prosecutors must show that you acted with implied malice to upgrade the charge from vehicular manslaughter to second-degree "Watson" murder.
Beyond showing that you were driving under the influence, they must also demonstrate that you knew driving under the influence was dangerous but disregarded this risk, leading to someone's death. For prosecutors to successfully prove implied malice, they must demonstrate the following:
- You acted deliberately (i.e., you intentionally drove while drunk),
- You knew your actions behind the wheel were dangerous and
- You consciously disregarded the risk to human life.
Evidence that may be used to prove implied malice may include the following:
- Your blood alcohol level at the time of the accident,
- Your prior history of DUI convictions and
- Whether you attended a DUI education program that highlighted the risks of drunk driving (including a "Watson admonition"—a warning that subsequent DUIs could result in murder charges if a fatality occurs).
Prosecutors may press for a Watson murder charge in any DUI case causing death. Still, the cases most likely to be upgraded to second-degree murder are those in which the defendant has prior DUIs and has received the Watson admonition.
What are the Consequences of a Watson Murder Charge?
If prosecutors are successful in charging you with the Watson murder, the potential consequences are severe compared to the default charge of vehicular manslaughter. If convicted of second-degree Watson murder, the possible penalties include the following:
- 5 years to life in state prison,
- A fine of up to $10,000 and
- A strike under California's Three Strikes Law.
By contrast, a charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated carries a penalty of four, six, or ten 10 years in state prison.
How Can You Get a Watson Murder Reduced to Vehicular Manslaughter?
Considering how much more substantial the penalties are for second-degree murder versus vehicular manslaughter, one of the most common preliminary defense strategies is for a skilled California criminal defense attorney to contest the upgraded charges or get your Watson murder charge reduced to vehicular manslaughter. The most common strategies for doing so include:
- You are a first-time DUI offender. Watson murder is rarely imposed on defendants with no prior DUIs.
- You were never given the "Watson admonition." Either you never attended a DUI education program, or the program did not include a warning of the potential of DUI causing death and the possibility of murder charges for future offenses.
- You did not act with implied malice. Even though you may have acted negligently, you did not show a conscious disregard for human life.
- You were involuntarily intoxicated. If you can show evidence that you were involuntarily intoxicated (e.g., drugged without your knowledge), you cannot be attributed as having implied malice.
Contact our law firm if you need more information or a case review to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.