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On the Origin of Facts

               STATE v. WANROW


FILE DATE:     December 28, 1978

CASE TITLE: The State of Washington, Respondent, v. Yvonne
               Wanrow, Petitioner.

[1] Homicide - Felony Murder - Elements - Intent To Kill. Intent to kill is not an element of second-degree felony murder under former RCW 9.48.040(2). The basis of that offense is the general malice which may be inferred from the malicious felonious intent which must be present in the underlying felony.

[2] Homicide - Second-Degree Murder - Statutory Provisions Intent To Kill. Former RCW 9.48.040(1), which defines second-degree murder as an unpremeditated homicide committed with intent to kill, is not rendered meaningless by construing subsection (2) of that statute, which defines second-degree felony murder, as not requiring an intent to kill.

[3] Homicide - Felony Murder - Merger Rule - Public Policy. Policy considerations favoring the merger of an assault into a resulting homicide, for purposes of felony murder prosecutions, are not sufficient to override clear legislative intent that persons who commit such an act be punished under the felony murder statute.

[4] Constitutional Law - Determinations by U. S. Supreme Court - Summary Dismissal. A summary dismissal by the United States Supreme Court of an appeal under 28 U.S.C. 1257(2) for want of a substantial federal question is a decision on the merits and is binding on state courts as to the applicability of federal constitutional provisions to the matter before the court.

[5] Homicide - Felony Murder - Validity - Constitutional Considerations. Former RCW 9.48.040(2), which defines second-degree felony murder, does not violate due process, the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to trial by jury, or equal protection.

[6] Criminal Law - Crimes - Discretion To Charge - Validity. There is no violation of equal protection when a prosecutor has discretion to charge different crimes with different punishments on the basis of a defendant's acts so long as the different crimes have different elements.

NAMES OF CONCURRING OR DISSENTING JUDGES: Hicks, J., concurs by separate opinion; Utter, J., and Wright, C.J., dissent by separate opinion.

NATURE OF ACTION: The defendant was charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault after she shot a man who entered the house where she was staying.

Superior Court: The Superior Court for Spokane County, No. 20876, William H. Williams, J., on August 16, 1977, refused to dismiss the murder charge.

Supreme Court: Upon granting a petition for discretionary review, the court holds that the merger rule is not applicable in this state to felony murder charges, and that there is no constitutional defect in the former second-degree felony murder statute. The refusal to dismiss the murder charge is AFFIRMED.



MARK LEEMON, RICHARD A. HANSEN, and ROBERT C. BORUCHOWITZ on behalf of Seattle-King County Public Defender Association, RONALD L. HENDRY on behalf of Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and JEREMY RANDOLPH, PROSECUTING ATTORNEY FOR LEWIS COUNTY, amici curiae.


Petitioner Yvonne Wanrow seeks review of the denial of her motion to dismiss count 1 of the information charging her with second degree (felony) murder. She asks this court to consider once again applying the doctrine of merger to the crime of second-degree felony-murder, I.E., that the assault resulting in the homicide is merged with the homicide so as to lose its separate identity, and accordingly to hold that a death resulting from a felonious assault cannot be felony-murder. We have twice before considered and rejected this doctrine. STATE v. HARRIS, 69 Wn.2d 928, 421 P.2d 662 (1966); STATE v. THOMPSON, 88 Wn.2d 13, 558 P.2d 202 (1977). We treated the matter as settled in STATE v. ROBERTS, 88 Wn.2d 337, 344 n.4, 562 P.2d 1259 (1977). In HARRIS and THOMPSON, strong dissents suggested the merger doctrine was a desirable policy in face of the harsh results of the felony-murder rule. We recognize that the consequences under our statutes of death resulting from an assault - criminal liability for felony-murder are harsh. Nonetheless, we are now firmly convinced that adoption of the merger doctrine is not compelled either by principles of sound statutory construction or by the state or federal constitutions, and that adoption of the doctrine by this court would be an unwarranted and insupportable invasion of the legislative function in defining crimes. We therefore reaffirm this court's refusal to apply the doctrine of merger to the crime of felony-murder in this state.

In August 1972 petitioner Wanrow shot William Wesler, a man much larger than herself, who had entered the home in which Ms. Wanrow was staying, unexpectedly, without permission of the occupants, intoxicated, and under circumstances suggesting the existence of a real threat to the safety of the children and women occupying the home. These circumstances are set out in full in STATE v. WANROW, 88 Wn.2d 221, 559 P.2d 548 (1977). Mr. Wesler died and petitioner was subsequently charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault. Petitioner was convicted of these charges, but her conviction was reversed on appeal. We affirmed that reversal on the ground that certain evidence was improperly admitted at trial. STATE v. WANROW, SUPRA. The majority opinion also set out a second ground for reversal, that the jury was not properly instructed on Ms. Wanrow's defense of self-defense. We emphasized that Ms. Wanrow, a small woman who was partially disabled at the time and whose children were present in the home, must be allowed to present to the jury her perception of the situation that night, "including those perceptions which were the product of our nation's 'long and unfortunate history of sex discrimination.' FRONTIERO v. RICHARDSON, 411 U.S. 677, 684, 36 L. Ed. 2d 583, 93 S. Ct. 1764 (1973)." STATE v. WANROW, SUPRA at 240. Petitioner's case was remanded for a new trial.

It was on remand, prior to commencement of the trial, that petitioner moved for dismissal of count 1 of the information, charging her with the crime of second-degree (felony) murder. She raised the entirely separate and distinct question of the merger doctrine, that is, whether a death resulting from a felonious assault can be a felony-murder. Her motion to dismiss was denied. We accepted discretionary review of the order of denial, and we affirm.

Count 1 of the information alleges Ms. Wanrow committed homicide on William Wesler while engaged in the commission of a second degree assault on him. Since second-degree assault is a felony, a resulting homicide becomes second-degree felony-murder under RCW 9.48.040(2).

At this point a brief description of the applicable statutory scheme is necessary. The homicide statute applicable in this case is the old RCW 9.48 (now superseded as to all acts committed on or after July 1, 1976, by RCW 9A.32). In that scheme, all punishable homicides are either murder (first- or second-degree) or manslaughter. Murder in the first degree includes both premeditated murder and homicides committed in the course of certain felonies (first-degree felony-murder). RCW 9.48.030. Murder in the second degree includes both intentional but unpremeditated homicides, and homicides committed in the course of all other felonies (second degree felony-murder). Petitioner is charged under this latter section. RCW 9.48.040(2). Manslaughter is all other nonjustified or nonexcused homicides. RCW 9.48.060. A homicide is manslaughter under this statute when the act resulting in death is unlawful but not felonious, and when the killing is unintentional. STATE v. SILL, 47 Wn.2d 647, 289 P.2d 720 (1955).

The felony alleged in this case is second-degree assault. The statute is RCW 9.11.020 (now superseded by RCW 9A.36). The relevant portion of the statute is as follows:

"     RCW 9.11.020 Assault in the second degree . . .

Every person who, under circumstances not amounting to assault in the first degree -

. . .

(4) Shall wilfully assault another with a weapon or other instrument or thing likely to produce bodily harm . . .

. . .

Shall be guilty of assault in the second degree . . .

Under the second section of the second-degree murder statute, a second-degree assault which results in death becomes murder in the second degree. RCW 9.48.040(2). The second-degree murder statute is as follows:

"     RCW 9.48.040 Murder in the second degree. The killing of a human being, unless it is excusable or justifiable, is murder in the second degree when -

(1) Committed with a design to effect the death of the person killed or of another, but without premeditation; or

(2) When perpetrated by a person engaged in the commission of, or in an attempt to commit, or in withdrawing from the scene of, a felony other than those enumerated in RCW 9.48.030 [the first-degree murder statute].

In this case the alleged assault on William Wesler is the felony giving rise to the charge of second-degree felony-murder. The assault is also the same act which caused his death. Thus, the felony underlying the murder charge is the very act which constitutes the murder. The proposed rule of construction known as the merger doctrine, as has been pointed out, is that an assault resulting in a homicide is merged with the homicide so that it no longer remains a separate and distinct assault. Since there is therefore no separate felonious assault, there is no basis for felony-murder. The crime, if proved, is a homicide, but not felony-murder. If the merger doctrine just described were applied to these statutes, the result would be that the facts alleged in the information would not show a felony-murder in the second degree, but would constitute only manslaughter, that is, "[a]ny homicide other than, murder in the first degree, or murder in the second degree, and not being excusable or justifiable." RCW 9.48.060. This would create a new category of manslaughter, I.E., where the death results from a FELONIOUS assault, contrary to this court's construction of the manslaughter statute in STATE v. SILL, SUPRA. It is petitioner's contention that this court is compelled, both as a matter of sound statutory construction and by constitutional law, to apply the merger doctrine and classify the crime alleged here as manslaughter. We decline to overrule STATE v. SILL or apply the merger doctrine, for the reasons stated hereafter.


Petitioner urges this court to adopt the merger doctrine as a matter of statutory construction where the underlying felony is second-degree assault. She contends adoption of the doctrine is necessary in order to make sense of the statutory scheme and preserve the basic distinctions among various crimes of homicide. A close reading of the homicide statute fails to support her position.

[1] Petitioner's arguments that the merger doctrine is necessary are complex and varied, but most rely on the basic and erroneous assumption that intent to kill is an element of second-degree felony-murder under RCW 9.48.040(2). We can think of no simpler or clearer way to state it: intent to kill is NOT an element of second-degree felony-murder. SEE NEW YORK LIFE INS. CO. v. JONES, 86 Wn.2d 44, 541 P.2d 989 (1975). The theoretical basis of felony-murder is that general malice (not intent to kill) may be inferred from the malicious felonious intent which must be present to prove the underlying felony. Where malice is present and homicide results, felony-murder may be shown. Intent to kill is not the sine qua non of felony-murder, either historically or in this statutory scheme.

Thus, in order to prove second-degree felony-murder in this case the State must prove: (1) that petitioner committed an assault in the second degree under RCW 9.11.020(4) (willful assault on another with a weapon likely to produce harm), and (2) that the homicide was perpetrated while petitioner was engaged in the commission of the assault. No intent to kill need be shown.

We must therefore reject petitioner's numerous arguments that the statutory scheme is distorted if the merger doctrine is not applied, which are based on the assumption that intent to kill is a necessary element of second-degree felony-murder.

[2] Petitioner further argues, however, that the second-degree murder statute itself does not make sense unless the merger doctrine is applied. The argument is that without the merger doctrine, any homicide, intentional or not, can be proved as a second-degree murder under subsection (2) of RCW 9.48.040 by alleging a willful assault. Thus, it is claimed subsection (1) of RCW 9.48.040, which defines second-degree murder where the homicide is unpremeditated but committed with intent to kill, is rendered meaningless, because the State will never need to allege or prove intent to kill.

It is true that where a willful assault has resulted in death, a prosecutor can allege and prove second-degree felony-murder under subsection (2) and not have to show intent to kill. This does not, however, render subsection (1) meaningless, because there are many conceivable circumstances in which an intent to kill is both present and clearly manifested. In these circumstances the State may properly charge under subsection (1). In practice it may be that most second-degree murders are proved through subsection (2), but as long as clear cases of unpremeditated acts with a manifest intent to kill are conceivable, subsection (1) is not meaningless.

Our conclusion that the merger doctrine is not necessary to make sense of the statutory scheme, and should therefore be rejected, was the reason this court declined to adopt the doctrine in STATE v. HARRIS, SUPRA. The legislature has taken no steps to change the HARRIS rule. Other states which have declined to adopt the merger doctrine have also done so on the grounds it was not required by their statutes. SEE BAKER v. STATE, 236 Ga. 754, 225 S.E.2d 269 (1976); PEOPLE v. VISER, 62 Ill. 2d 568, 343 N.E.2d 903 (1975); HILLIARD v. TEXAS, 513 S.W.2d 28 (Tex. Crim. App. 1974); ROBLES v. STATE, 188 So. 2d 789 (Fla. 1966). In fact, the early cases adopting the doctrine, in New York, Missouri and Kansas did so in order to avoid the wholly unacceptable result, under the applicable statutory scheme of the state involved, that all homicides not justified or excused become first-degree murder. SEE STATE v. CLARK, 204 Kan. 38, 460 P.2d 586 (1969), discussing STATE v. FISHER, 120 Kan. 226, 243 P. 291 (1926); PEOPLE v. MORAN, 246 N.Y. 100, 158 N.E. 35 (1927); STATE v. SHOCK, 68 Mo. 552 (1878). We are not faced with such a faulty statutory scheme here.

[3] More recently state courts adopting the doctrine have purported to follow the reasoning of the early cases, but have not shown their statutes are similar to the statutes construed in the early cases. SEE MASSIE v. STATE, 553 P.2d 186 (Okla. Crim. App. 1976); PEOPLE v. IRELAND, 70 Cal. 2d 522, 450 P.2d 580, 75 Cal. Rptr. 188 (1969); STATE v. BRANCH, 244 Ore. 97, 415 P.2d 766 (1966); STATE v. ESSMAN, 98 Ariz. 228, 403 P.2d 540 (1965). It can be assumed these courts were persuaded the doctrine was desirable as a policy matter, as a step toward limiting the scope of the admittedly harsh felony-murder rule. Such a rationale for application of the rule is popular with commentators. See, for example, Comment, THE MERGER DOCTRINE AS A LIMITATION ON THE FELONY-MURDER RULE: A BALANCE OF CRIMINAL LAW PRINCIPLES, 13 Wake Forest L. Rev. 369 (1977).

Nonetheless, the intent of the legislature to punish those who commit a homicide in the course of a felony under the applicable murder statute is clear. There is no basis for assuming the rule was not meant to apply where the underlying felony is assault. Furthermore, the felony-murder rule itself has a firm historical basis in the criminal law, and the authority of the legislature to adopt the rule, apart from the constitutional objections we consider next, is not questioned. We find the suggested policy basis for applying the merger doctrine under these circumstances both inadequate to override the legislative intent clearly expressed in the homicide statute and an invasion of legislative power to define crimes.


Petitioner next contends this court is required as a matter of constitutional law to adopt the merger doctrine in cases where second-degree assault is the underlying felony. Her constitutional arguments, we note, are applicable to the operation of the felony murder rule generally, and are not confined in theory to cases where the underlying felony is assault. Her attack is thus on the constitutionality of the felony-murder rule per se.

In the majority decision in STATE v. THOMPSON, SUPRA, in which we rejected for a second time the application of the merger doctrine to our homicide statutes, we acknowledged explicitly the view that the merger doctrine did not involve constitutional issues. STATE v. THOMPSON, SUPRA at 17. A strong dissent disagreed, raising the very constitutional questions petitioner urges now. Our holding, which implicitly rejected the constitutional arguments, was appealed to the United States Supreme Court under 28 U.S.C. 1257(2), an appeal available AS OF RIGHT when properly taken. The appellant there alleged RCW 9.48.040(2) unconstitutionally deprived her of due process and equal protection of the laws, the very constitutional grounds now urged by petitioner Wanrow. The appeal was dismissed in October 1977 after discretionary review of petitioner Wanrow's motion was granted by this court, "for the want of a substantial federal question." THOMPSON v. WASHINGTON, 434 U.S. 898, 54 L. Ed. 2d 185, 98 S. Ct. 290 (1977).


The order below denying petitioner's motion to dismiss count 1 of the indictment against her is affirmed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

CONCURRING JUDGES: Rosellini, Hamilton, Stafford, Brachtenbach, and Dolliver, JJ., concur.


CONCURRING OPINION: Were I a member of the legislature, I would vote to adopt the merger rule where assault is the precedent felony in a felony murder charge, for that seems the fairer rule to me. Nonetheless, I concur in the result in this case for the reason set forth in STATE v. THOMPSON, 88 Wn.2d 13, 17-18, 558 P.2d 202 (1977), where we stated:

"     While it may be that the felony murder statute is harsh, and while it does relieve the prosecution from the burden of proving intent to commit murder, it is the law of this state. The legislature recently modified some parts of our criminal code, effective July 1, 1976.

However, the statutory context in question here was left unchanged.

The rejection by this court of the merger rule has not been challenged by the legislature during the nearly 10 years since HARRIS [STATE v. HARRIS, 69 Wn.2d 928, 421 P.2d 662 (1966)] . . .

While the legislature did not adopt the merger rule following HARRIS, it had an opportunity to do so when it substantially modified the state criminal code effective July 1, 1976. Therefore, I view this case in the same light as one coming within our rule that following this court's construction of a statute, its reenactment without change indicates legislative approval of the construction. Consequently, I believe that if the merger rule is to be adopted for a felony-murder case where assault is the precedent felony, the legislature, rather than this court, should make the change.



For these reasons I dissent.

CONCURRING JUDGES: Wright, C.J., concurs with Utter, J.

POST-OPINION INFORMATION: Reconsideration denied February 28, 1979.