LEGAL HISTORY OF THE KILL ZONE THEORY
In People v. Bland, the California Supreme Court introduced the kill zone theory to address situations in which a defendant attempts to kill an entire group of people in order to kill a specific victim. Because the defendant acts with the specific intent to kill everyone in the victim's vicinity, he is guilty of attempted murder of each member of the group.
The Bland court provided examples of situations in which applying the kill zone theory is appropriate. The paradigmatic example is that of “an assailant who places a bomb on a commercial airplane intending to harm a primary target on board [who] ensures by this method of attack that all passengers will be killed.”
As the California Supreme Court later recognized, “Bland's adoption of the kill zone theory meant that a prosecutor charging attempted murder in a multi-victim case had an additional, alternative ground by which to prove the requisite intent to kill.”
PEOPLE V. CANIZALES
In People v. Canizales (2019), the California Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the circumstances in which it is appropriate to apply the kill zone theory. Following Canizales, juries may only convict a defendant under the kill zone theory if both of the following are true:
the circumstances of the defendant’s attack (type and extent of force) on his intended victim indicate that the only reasonable inference is that he intended to create a zone of fatal harm around that victim; and
the other alleged victim was located within that zone of harm but was not the target.
The theory cannot be used if the defendant’s actions give rise to any reasonable alternative explanation that does not involve a kill zone. If a defendant clearly targets one person but does not intend to kill everyone around the target in order to ensure the target’s death, the kill zone theory cannot be applied.
In Canizales, defendants Canizales and Windfield shot at their intended victim, and although they missed him, Windfield hit a bystander and endangered a man standing next to the target victim.
In addition to charging them for the murder of the bystander and attempted murder of the target, prosecutors used the kill zone theory to charge Canizales and Windfield with the attempted murder of the man standing next to the target. The California Supreme Court ultimately reversed the kill zone conviction, finding that there was “[in]sufficient evidence in the record to support an instruction on the kill zone theory.” There was no zone of fatal harm around the target—the defendants shot five bullets in the direction of a target who was over 100 feet away and escaped down a wide city street after the first shot was fired. A reasonable jury could not find that in an open, easily escapable environment, the only explanation was that the defendants intended to kill everyone in the vicinity.
Although Canizales is undoubtedly a step in the right direction on kill zone law, the danger of misunderstanding and abusing the theory still remains.
There are hundreds of defendants who were convicted and excessively sentenced under the kill zone theory. Those convictions now stand on unstable legal ground and are likely subject to reversal with the Canizales decision. This is true for any case in which the kill zone was applied in circumstances other than the two previously discussed. Such cases merit a complete review under the new standard.
Until that happens, justice has not been served.