WHAT IS THE KILL ZONE THEORY?

The “kill zone” theory is a little-known theory of criminal liability that can be applied when a defendant aims to kill a particular victim (a “target”), but the circumstances of the attack lead to a reasonable conclusion that the defendant concurrently intended to kill everyone in the immediate vicinity of that target to ensure the target’s death. 


To apply the kill zone theory, there must be evidence that the defendant intended to kill everyone in the target’s vicinity in order to kill the target. Because explicit evidence is uncommon, prosecutors often infer the intent to kill from circumstantial evidence, based on the facts and circumstances of the event.

The paradigmatic kill zone case is that of a defendant who blows up a plane in order to kill one person aboard. The defendant is aware that his actions will kill every passenger and intends to do so. Even if some or all passengers survive, this defendant would be guilty of the attempted murder of every person on the plane, in addition to his target victim. Each attempted murder conviction carries a life sentence. 


The kill zone theory gives prosecutors an alternative way to charge attempted murder in a multi-victim case without explicit proof that the defendant had the requisite intent to kill. In practice, the kill zone theory has led to excessive sentencing that disproportionately affects people of color.  


Cases that actually fit the kill zone theory are exceedingly rare, yet there have been hundreds of kill zone convictions in California. Many of those cases would likely be overturned under current law

 

"[T]he potential for misapplication of the kill zone theory remains troubling."

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

People v. Canizales