IN THE SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA
Plaintiff and Respondent,
JESUS CIANEZ HERNANDEZ,
Defendant and Appellant.
Super. Ct. No. 236428
A jury convicted defendant Jesus Cianez Hernandez of one count of murder
(Pen. Code, § 187).1 The jury found that defendant had personally used a
dangerous or deadly weapon in the commission of the offense (§ 12022.5), and it
found true a special circumstance allegation that the murder was intentional and
committed for financial gain (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(1)). The jury also convicted
defendant of conspiracy to commit murder (§ 12022, subd. (b)), and it found true a
special circumstance allegation that the object of the conspiracy was murder for
financial gain. At the penalty phase, the jury returned a verdict of death.
Defendant’s appeal to this court is automatic. (§ 1239, subd. (b).)
As we shall explain, we affirm the murder and conspiracy convictions as
well as the financial gain special circumstance based on the murder conviction, but
Unless otherwise stated, all further statutory references are to the Penal
we strike the special circumstance based on the conspiracy conviction. We also
conclude that numerous errors at the penalty phase of trial require reversal of the
judgment of death.
A. Guilt Phase – Prosecution’s Case
Alfredo Padilla and Brenda Prado were heroin and cocaine dealers who
lived in a house in Grayson, a small town in Stanislaus County. Also living in the
house (hereafter the Grayson house) were Betty Lawson and her boyfriend, Dallas
The murder victim, Esther “Cussy” Alvarado, was a heroin addict and
prostitute, who would buy heroin from Padilla and Prado and occasionally stay at
their house. They later banned her from the house because she had not paid for
drugs they had given her, and they suspected she had stolen a radio from the
On January 4, 1988, between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m., Anthony Ybarra
(Ybarra) and his brother Gilbert came to the Grayson house. Gilbert, who was
drunk, brought a lawn mower that he had stolen earlier in the day from Johnny
Alvarado (no relation to murder victim Esther Alvarado) and that he hoped to
exchange for drugs. Ybarra also wanted to buy drugs, but he knew Padilla and
Prado would not sell to him because they suspected him of being a police
When Ybarra and Gilbert arrived at the house, they saw Dallas White
outside. Ybarra told White he wanted to buy heroin. While they were standing
outside talking, Johnny Alvarado drove up, retrieved his lawn mower from
Gilbert, and headed home. Gilbert accompanied him, apparently hoping to
persuade him not to report Gilbert’s theft of the lawn mower to the police. Ybarra
remained outside the Grayson house.
As Ybarra and White continued their conversation, Ybarra saw defendant,
whom he had known for many years, drive up to Guzman’s Bar, some 500 feet
away. A woman with long hair was with defendant. After dropping off the
woman at the bar, defendant drove to the Grayson house. Ybarra feared defendant
because, while working for the police, Ybarra had “set up” the boyfriend of
defendant’s sister and had testified against him. He therefore hid behind a car as
defendant and White entered the house.
Ten to fifteen minutes later, Ybarra saw defendant, Padilla, and Prado go
out the back door of the house and enter a small trailer. Ybarra crept through a
hole in a fence and peeked through a window of the trailer, hoping to find out
where Padilla and Prado hid their drugs so he could steal them. Ybarra heard
defendant say, “that bitch, Cussy [Alvarado]” was waiting for him at Guzman’s
Bar, and Prado and Padilla complained that Alvarado had “ripped them off.”
Defendant offered to beat up Alvarado, and when Prado and Padilla expressed
interest, he said he would kill her “for the right price.” Prado replied she would
give defendant two grams of heroin and an eighth of an ounce of cocaine to kill
Alvarado. Defendant said, “Consider it done,” and he and Padilla shook hands.
Defendant, Prado, and Padilla then left the trailer and returned to the house.
Shortly thereafter, Ybarra watched as defendant left the house and got in his car,
drove back to Guzman’s Bar, picked up Alvarado, and drove off with her between
11:30 and 11:45 p.m. Dallas White then gave Ybarra a ride home.
According to Lorenzo Guzman, the owner of Guzman’s Bar, Esther
Alvarado left his bar between 11:30 and midnight, after staying 15 to 20 minutes.
Guzman saw her enter the passenger side of what he thought was a tan Oldsmobile
Between midnight and 1:00 a.m., Rudy Galvan was driving home from
work when he saw a body lying by the road. He drove to Guzman’s Bar, about a
mile away, and asked Guzman to call the police. Stanislaus County Sheriff’s
deputies responding to the call found Esther Alvarado’s body. She had been shot
to death. Alvarado’s right fingers were muddy, and what appeared to be scratch
marks were in the mud next to her body. A thick track of mud was on the road,
made by two wheels of a car.
Later that night, Homicide Detective Michael Dulaney drove to the nearby
town of Patterson. At the home of Guadalupe Porter, defendant’s sister, Dulaney
saw a black and gold Oldsmobile, which belonged to defendant and his sister. The
car had a large quantity of wet mud on the left side and the rear bumper; there also
was mud on the gas pedal. On the dashboard was a box of Winchester .22-caliber
cartridges. On the floor of the car was a similar .22-caliber bullet, and an
expended .22-caliber casing was under the seat. On the ground near the car were
two shotgun shell casings. The police entered Porter’s house and arrested
Later that morning, Deputy Sheriff Richard McFarren questioned
defendant. Defendant said that during the previous night he had taken a woman
named Ana (identified by other witnesses as Ana Najera) to a motel in Modesto,
dropped her off, and returned to his sister’s house. He denied going to the
Grayson house. When asked about the mud on the car, defendant said that after
dropping off Najera, he had driven through mud on his way to the Candyland
apartments to buy drugs. He claimed the bullets in the car were there when it was
purchased. He did not say when he had bought the car.
Sheriff’s Investigator Mike Clements interviewed Guadalupe Porter,
defendant’s sister. She said she had borrowed a shotgun and some ammunition
from Brenda Prado, but when asked to locate them she could not do so.
That same morning, Anthony Ybarra learned from Esther Alvarado’s
brother that she had been killed. Some time later, Deputy David Nirschl
questioned Ybarra about the lawn mower his brother Gilbert had stolen from
Johnny Alvarado. When Ybarra volunteered that he had information about the
murder, Nirschl took him to see Raul DeLeon, one of the deputies investigating
the murder. Ybarra told DeLeon that he had overheard defendant, Prado, and
Padilla planning to kill Esther Alvarado.
Dr. William Ernoehazy performed an autopsy on Esther Alvarado. Her
body contained a .22-caliber bullet, as well as shotgun pellets, wadding, and a
slug. The path of the slug through her body indicated that it had been fired
downward into her back at a distance of roughly three feet while she was lying on
the ground. Criminalist John Yoshida testified that the copper wash and the
design of the bullet found in Alvarado’s body were “exactly the same” as the
Winchester cartridges found in defendant’s car.
Shortly after the murder, Brenda Prado moved to Oklahoma, where she
lived with her daughter, Valerie Castillo. Three months later, Castillo found a
double-barreled sawed-off shotgun hidden in the springs of a couch Prado had
brought with her. According to Criminalist Michael White, the two shell casings
found in defendant’s front yard the morning after Alvarado was killed were fired
from this shotgun, the slug found in Alvarado’s body was “probably” fired from
the gun’s right barrel, and the wadding found in Alvarado’s body was “consistent
with” the shells retrieved from defendant’s front yard.
Eleven months after the murder, Deputy District Attorney Michael Stone
and District Attorney Investigator Alan Fontes were preparing for the trial of
Alfredo Padilla who, like defendant, was charged with Alvarado’s murder.
Looking closely at a slide projection of Alvarado’s body taken at the crime scene,
they discovered that what sheriff’s deputies had thought to be scratch marks in the
mud next to her body were letters spelling “Jesse” (defendant’s first name).
According to Dr. Ernoehazy, who performed the autopsy, Alvarado died some 15
minutes after being shot, and she could have remained conscious long enough to
write defendant’s name in the mud.
Deputy Daniel Cron checked defendant’s car for fingerprints. On the
outside of the passenger’s side window he found a latent print that matched
Alvarado’s right middle finger.2
B. Guilt Phase – Defense Case
Defendant presented an alibi defense, claiming that someone living at the
Grayson house had killed Esther Alvarado and had framed him by writing “Jesse”
in the mud next to Alvarado’s body.
Fifteen-year-old Steven Rodrigues, Guadalupe Porter’s son and defendant’s
nephew, testified that on the night of the murder, defendant left their house shortly
after 6:30 p.m. to take Ana Najera home. Defendant returned an hour later and
watched television with Steven until about 10:30 p.m., when they fell asleep in the
living room. Defendant was still asleep at 6:30 the next morning when Steven, a
paper boy, got up to deliver newspapers.
Steven also testified that Alfredo Padilla and Brenda Prado had come to
visit on New Year’s Eve (four days before the murder of Alvarado) and Padilla in
celebration fired off a sawed-off shotgun in front of the house. According to the
defense, this explained the presence of the shotgun shells the police found in front
of the house the morning after the murder.
Alfredo Padilla and Brenda Prado were tried separately for Alvarado’s
murder. Padilla was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, and we
affirmed the judgment. (People v. Padilla (1995) 11 Cal.4th 891.)
Defendant’s sister, Guadalupe Porter, testified that Esther Alvarado had
often been a passenger in defendant’s car. That, the defense claimed, explained
the fingerprint the deputies had found on the car window.
Through testimony of defense witnesses and cross-examination of the
prosecution’s witnesses, the defense tried to show that Anthony Ybarra had left
the Grayson house long before defendant arrived there. Therefore, the defense
theorized, Ybarra must have made up the conversation in which defendant,
Padilla, and Prado discussed killing Esther Alvarado. According to the defense,
Ybarra’s motivation was to avoid prosecution for helping to steal Johnny
Alvarado’s lawn mower and to obtain other favors from the Stanislaus County
District Attorney’s Office. The defense presented evidence of Ybarra’s long
criminal record for theft and for alcohol- and drug-related offenses and the
repeated dismissal of these charges by the district attorney’s office, possibly in
exchange for information. To refute Ybarra’s testimony that he no longer used
drugs, Donald Yarbary testified that Ybarra had used heroin with him the week
The defense also tried to show that no conversation could have occurred in
the trailer where, according to prosecution witness Ybarra, he overheard defendant
plan to kill Esther Alvarado. Dallas White described the trailer as a “dump” that
“nobody used.” His testimony was corroborated by Enrique Jiminez, a drug user
and frequent visitor to the Grayson house. Tom Lilly, who moved into the
Grayson house after Alvarado’s murder, described the trailer as “all caved in,
[with] water in it and garbage all the way up.”
C. Penalty Phase – Prosecution’s Case
The prosecution presented evidence that in 1982 defendant killed Robert
Caseri (Caseri). Defendant was arrested for this crime, but was not prosecuted
because the district attorney’s office believed it had insufficient evidence.
Caseri lived in Patterson, Stanislaus County. On February 15, 1982, he
telephoned his sister, Karen Linn Hatcher. He was crying. He told Hatcher to
remember the names of defendant, Earl Rodrigues, and Arnulfo “Fish” DeLeon,
because they were going to kill him. When Hatcher saw Caseri two days later, he
was nervous and again said that defendant, Rodrigues, and DeLeon were going to
kill him. She never saw her brother again. Nor did her mother, Billie Jean Caseri,
who last saw her son on February 18, 1982.
The next week, the two women made inquiries in town to find out what had
happened to Caseri. They talked to Saul Banda, who worked at the Red Lion
Cocktail Lounge in Patterson. Banda said that on the night of February 19, 1982,
he saw Caseri buying drinks for defendant and Rodrigues; that defendant and
Caseri got into a fight, and Caseri was hurt; that Banda had offered to take Caseri
to the hospital, but Caseri refused, saying that defendant and Rodrigues were
going to “get” him. Banda had not seen Caseri since.
On March 2, 1982 Patterson Police Officer Tony Zavala, who was
investigating Caseri’s disappearance, spoke to Banda. Banda said that on the
night of Caseri’s disappearance, Banda saw him drinking with defendant, DeLeon,
and Rodrigues. Caseri had a “wad of bills” and was paying for the drinks. At
Banda’s suggestion, Caseri gave the money to Patty Poso, another bartender, for
safekeeping. Later, Banda saw that Caseri was bleeding from the head, and Caseri
told Banda that defendant had beaten him up because he had refused to buy
defendant more beer. Caseri left the bar at about 11 p.m. but returned “later on,”
and Banda saw defendant sitting next to Caseri drinking beer. At around
midnight, Banda looked for Caseri, but he and defendant were gone. DeLeon and
Rodrigues were still in the bar. (At trial, Banda denied remembering much of this
statement, and his conversation with Zavala was admitted as a prior inconsistent
Officer Zavala also interviewed Earl Rodrigues, who said that on the night
Caseri disappeared he was at the Red Lion with defendant when they saw Caseri,
an old friend of defendant’s. Defendant and Caseri left for a short time and then
returned, and Caseri bought “everybody” several rounds of beer. Later, threats
were exchanged between defendant and Caseri. The two men, accompanied by
Rodrigues, then went outside the bar. There, defendant knocked Caseri down,
grabbed him by the hair, and slammed his head into the pavement. Rodrigues and
several other men broke up the fight, and they all went back in the bar. After
midnight defendant told Rodrigues that he and Caseri were going to another bar,
and the two of them left. At 1:30 a.m., Rodrigues left the bar and discovered his
car was gone. Defendant, who had the keys, returned with the car a few minutes
later, and they drove home. In a second interview a month later, Rodrigues gave a
similar statement, with the only significant difference being that he mentioned that
defendant left the bar for a period of time after the fight, and then returned before
departing with Caseri. (As with witness Banda, Rodrigues denied remembering
much of these statements, which were then admitted as prior inconsistent
Between 11 and 11:30 p.m. on the night Caseri disappeared, Patterson
Police Officers Louis Bonacich and Jeff Shively saw a pool of fresh blood, 12 to
15 inches in diameter, in an alley outside the Red Lion bar. They checked the Red
Lion and two other nearby bars, but found no indication that anyone had been in a
fight or had been injured.
Caseri’s body, severely decomposed, was found in the Delta-Mendota
Canal in April 1982. According to Dr. William Ernoehazy, who performed an
autopsy on the body, Caseri had been dead one to three months. He had been
killed by at least six blows to the head, which had been inflicted by both ends of a
In the early morning hours of April 3, 1982, Jack Price, then a Patterson
police officer, waited in plain clothes outside defendant’s home to arrest him when
he arrived. Defendant drove up at 1:30 a.m. As he got out of his car, a neighbor
warned him that a police officer was present. Defendant got back in his car and
drove away at high speed. Several blocks later defendant stopped the car abruptly
and tried to run away, but halted when he heard Price “rack” his shotgun.
Referring to a woman who was a passenger in his car, defendant said, “Leave her
alone, man. She don’t know nothing about it.” At that point, however, Price had
not told defendant why he was arresting him, and defendant never clarified what it
was that the woman knew nothing about.
Two weeks later, Criminalist Kenneth Penner tested Earl Rodrigues’s car
for blood. He found small stains of human blood on the back of the front
passenger seat and on the foam mat in the back of the car. The back seat of the car
had been removed and was never tested.
The prosecution also presented evidence that in 1977 defendant and an
accomplice robbed Mary Toste and her mother at their small market in Turlock,
Stanislaus County. Defendant used a gun in the robbery, and as he fled he fired a
shot into the store counter near Mary’s legs. He was convicted of robbery.
The prosecution presented documentary evidence that defendant was
convicted of burglary, a felony, in 1983.
D. Penalty Phase – Defense Case
At the penalty phase of his capital trial, defendant presented not only
evidence to rebut the prosecution’s claim that he had killed Robert Caseri, but also
evidence about his childhood and drug use.
To explain the bloodstains in Earl Rodrigues’s car, Guadalupe Porter
(defendant’s sister and Rodrigues’s ex-wife) testified that on April 3, 1982, she,
Rodrigues, and three of their children were riding in the car when it was involved
in an accident. Several occupants of the car were injured and bled. The family
went to the hospital, where Rodrigues was arrested for the murder of Caseri. To
explain the removal of the rear seat of the car (which would have been covered
with blood if it had been used to transport Caseri), Porter said her brother-in-law,
Alex Rodrigues, had removed it because he wanted to get some tools in the car’s
trunk, and he did not have a key. To corroborate Porter’s testimony about the
accident the defense presented hospital records and testimony from the officer
who arrested Rodrigues at the hospital.
Porter also testified that as a child defendant had many friends. Later,
when his sister Esther went to jail, defendant supported and took care of her four
children for about four months.
Ernesto Hernandez, defendant’s brother, testified that he and defendant
grew up in a family of 11 children, five of whom were alive at the time of trial.
Their father was a farm laborer, and neither he nor defendant’s mother abused the
children. As a child, defendant was an altar boy, obeyed his parents, got along
with others, and stayed out of trouble. He did well in school, liked sports, and
stayed after school to improve his grades.
The defense introduced academic records to show that defendant did well
in courses at Columbia Junior College in Tuolumne County, which he took while
incarcerated at the California Youth Authority.
Nurse Rick Lindsey of the Haight-Ashbury Drug Detoxification Clinic in
San Francisco described heroin addiction as a “chronic and progressive disease,”
which “without treatment always gets worse.” He explained that it is very difficult
to stop using heroin because, although most of the physical symptoms of
withdrawal will be gone in a week, the psychological dependency and “intense
craving” for the drug persist for years. Noting that defendant once told a
probation officer he had started using heroin at the age of 14, Lindsey testified that
heroin use from this early age would be an “extremely severe” addiction that
would cause arrested psychological development. Defendant also introduced jail
records showing that he was treated for heroin withdrawal when he was taken to
the jail after being arrested the morning after the death of murder victim Esther
II. GUILT PHASE ISSUES
A. Deputy District Attorney Berrett’s Participation in the Prosecution
Deputy District Attorney Michael Stone was assigned to try defendant’s
case. But on the first day of trial, Chief Deputy Holly Berrett appeared for the
prosecution, explaining that Stone had pneumonia. The next day, as the trial court
was screening prospective jurors for hardship, Berrett announced that defendant
had subpoenaed her because she had been at the crime scene on the night Esther
Alvarado was killed and because she could testify as to whether the district
attorney’s office had offered compensation to prosecution witness Anthony Ybarra
in exchange for his testimony. Berrett had previously testified at the trial of
Alfredo Padilla, who was also convicted of murdering Alvarado. (See People
v. Padilla, supra, 11 Cal.4th at p. 931.) Defendant asked the trial court to recuse
Berrett from further participation in the case except as a witness.
The trial court asked if defendant was requesting a mistrial. Defendant said
he saw no problem with Berrett’s participation in the prosecution up to that point,
but he believed a problem would arise if she continued. The court recused Berrett
from any further participation in the trial. For the next three days, Deputy District
Attorney James Brazelton represented the People, until Deputy District Attorney
Stone recovered. Stone handled the rest of the trial.
At the guilt phase of trial, the prosecution called Berrett to testify. She
described her observations as the district attorney’s representative at the crime
scene on the night of Alvarado’s murder; she said the only consideration her office
had given to witness Ybarra in exchange for his testimony was to ask the jail to
allow him to serve an eight-month jail sentence in another county and under an
Defendant asserts that Attorney Berrett violated the trial court’s recusal
order, claiming she “remained involved” in the case. He notes that Berrett
assigned attorney Brazelton to handle the prosecution until Attorney Stone’s
recovery from his illness, and that she provided a questionnaire for Brazelton to
use during voir dire.
We find no violation of the trial court’s order. A defendant’s motion to
disqualify a prosecutor “shall not be granted unless it is shown by the evidence
that a conflict of interest exists such as would render it unlikely that the defendant
would receive a fair trial.” (§ 1424.) Here, the trial court appropriately
disqualified Chief Deputy Berrett from direct participation in the prosecution of
defendant’s case, because if she became a witness she and the defense attorneys
would face the awkward task of arguing Berrett’s credibility to the jury, and
because the jury might find it difficult to separate her roles as prosecutor and
witness. (See generally People ex rel. Younger v. Superior Court (1978) 86
Cal.App.3d 180.) But the trial court’s order did not prohibit Berrett from
assigning an attorney to represent the prosecution or from giving that attorney
questions to ask the jury. Nor was there any reason for the court to do so.
Performing these tasks could not lead to jury confusion, and we see no evidence
that Berrett’s observations at the scene of the murder caused her to do these tasks
in a manner that violated defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Defendant speculates that Berrett’s “supervisorial duties . . . made it likely
that she remained involved in discretionary prosecutorial functions throughout the
case.” But the record contains no evidence that she was involved in any such
activities other than those mentioned in the previous paragraph, and even if she
was, such participation did not violate defendant’s right to a fair trial.
In a footnote, defendant accuses his trial counsel of incompetence for not
moving to disqualify the entire Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office on the
ground that Chief Deputy Berrett was a material witness. But Berrett’s testimony,
which pertained only to tasks she performed in her official capacity with the
district attorney’s office, did not create a conflict of interest “that would render it
unlikely that the defendant would receive a fair trial” (§ 1424) if the district
attorney’s office handled the prosecution. (See generally People v. McPartland
(1988) 198 Cal.App.3d 569, 574 [“recusal of an entire district attorney’s office is
not a step to be taken lightly, even where one or more deputy district attorneys
may be called as witnesses”]; People ex rel. Younger v. Superior Court, supra, 86
Cal.App.3d 180 [reversing trial court’s order recusing district attorney’s office
because one attorney was a witness to photographic lineups].) Thus, there was no
reason for defendant’s trial counsel to make the motion in question.
B. Trial Court’s Alleged Conflict of Interest
At a pretrial hearing pertaining to a motion by defendant to strike certain
prior felony convictions, the trial judge (Charles Stone), remarked in passing that
he had represented defendant in one of the felonies, which resulted in a guilty
plea. Neither party asked Judge Stone to disqualify himself as a result of this
disclosure. At trial, the prosecution did not use the prior conviction in which
Judge Stone had represented defendant.
Defendant asserts that when Judge Stone represented him in the prior
felony matter, the judge incurred a duty of loyalty to defendant that remained even
after he became a judge. As a result, defendant argues, Judge Stone had a conflict
of interest that violated defendant’s right to an impartial judge, as guaranteed by
the state and federal Constitutions. Defendant’s failure to challenge Judge Stone
or to seek review of the issue by a timely writ petition bars him from now raising
this issue. (People v. Brown (1993) 6 Cal.4th 322, 335-336; see also People
v. Barrera (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 541, 547-552.)
Even if defendant had preserved the issue, he would not be entitled to
relief. If anything, Judge Stone’s duty of loyalty to defendant would have made it
difficult for him to be fair to the prosecution, not to defendant. Defendant
speculates that Judge Stone may have been prejudiced against him because, while
representing him, Stone may have learned prejudicial information about him that
was not introduced at trial. The record, however, contains no evidence that Judge
Stone knew of any such information.
Finally, we reject defendant’s contention that his trial attorneys were
incompetent for not moving to disqualify Judge Stone based on his prior
representation of defendant. Defense counsel may have reasonably concluded that
this circumstance would not bias him against defendant and would, if anything,
make him a more sympathetic arbiter.
C. Sufficiency of Voir Dire
Defendant contends that during voir dire the prospective jurors were not
adequately questioned to determine whether their attitudes regarding capital
punishment would “ ‘prevent or substantially impair’ ” their ability to determine
whether defendant should be sentenced to death. (Wainwright v. Witt (1985) 469
U.S. 412, 424.) He claims the trial court conducted a “perfunctory” and “cursory”
inquiry into the prospective jurors’ views on capital punishment by asking
“leading questions unlikely to uncover bias.” On this issue, he notes, defense
counsel posed no questions to 11 of the jurors who were chosen for the trial, and
asked only one question of the twelfth juror. As a result, he claims, he was not
tried by an impartial jury, as required by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to
the federal Constitution, and the jury’s penalty decision did not satisfy his Eighth
Amendment right to a reliable penalty determination.
To the extent defendant contends the trial court inadequately questioned
prospective jurors on their attitudes toward the death penalty, he has not preserved
the issue for appeal because he did not object on this ground at trial. (People
v. Avena (1996) 13 Cal.4th 394, 413.) In any event, the court adequately
questioned the prospective jurors. Following a procedure recommended by this
court in Hovey v. Superior Court (1980) 28 Cal.3d 1, 80, the court questioned the
jurors individually and in sequestration. After asking prospective jurors to
describe their views on the death penalty, the court asked whether they would
automatically convict defendant so they could get to the penalty stage or would
automatically find the special circumstance allegations not true to avoid the
question of penalty; whether they would in every case vote to impose the death
penalty or would in every case vote to impose a sentence of life without possibility
of parole; and whether they had moral, religious, or philosophical beliefs that
would impair their ability to decide the case. Counsel were then permitted to ask
follow-up questions. There was no constitutional violation in this procedure. (See
People v. Avena, supra, 13 Cal.4th at p. 413.)
Defendant also appears to claim his trial attorneys were incompetent
because, with one exception, they asked no follow-up questions of the prospective
jurors who were later selected for the trial, to further probe their attitudes on the
death penalty. But counsel did ask follow-up questions to other prospective jurors
who were not selected. In not questioning the prospective jurors who were later
chosen to serve on the jury, defense counsel may well have made a reasonable
tactical decision. We find no evidence of incompetence. (See generally People
v. Memro (1995) 11 Cal.4th 786, 818-819; People v. Tuilaepa (1992) 4 Cal.4th
569, 587; People v. Lewis (1990) 50 Cal.3d 262, 289-290.)
D. Trial Court’s Restriction on Defendant’s Cross-examination of
Defendant claims the trial court improperly restricted his cross-examination
of certain prosecution witnesses, thereby violating state law as well as the state
and federal Constitutions. Specifically, he argues he should have been permitted
to ask questions on three subjects: whether the prosecution made offers of
leniency in exchange for the testimony of witness Anthony Ybarra; whether
Ybarra was using drugs at the time he testified; and whether Ybarra had
information about the murder of Esther Alvarado before he told deputies that he
had heard defendant, Alfredo Padilla, and Brenda Prado conspiring to commit the
crime. We address each of these claims below.
1. Offers of leniency to Ybarra
The defense theory was that prosecution witness Anthony Ybarra had
falsely implicated defendant in the murder of Esther Alvarado so he would not be
prosecuted for the theft of Johnny Alvarado’s lawn mower. Both Ybarra and
Holly Berrett, Chief Deputy in the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office,
testified that no such agreement had been made. Berrett explained that Ybarra had
not been charged with the theft because, although Ybarra was initially a suspect,
Detective Nirschl had concluded after further investigation that Ybarra’s brother
Gilbert had stolen the lawn mower without Ybarra’s help.
During defendant’s cross-examination of Ybarra, this exchange occurred:
Q: “So now when you had been talking with Detective Nirschl were you
worried at all about being charged with receiving stolen property, helping to sell
A: “No sir.
Q: “You hadn’t thought about that one?
A: “I wasn’t worried.
Q: “You weren’t worried because your brother was going to say it was all
his doing, right?”
The trial court sustained the prosecutor’s objection to this question as
Defendant argues the trial court should have overruled the objection,
claiming it unfairly restricted his attempt to show that Ybarra’s lack of concern
was based on an undisclosed deal with the prosecution. We disagree. Ybarra had
already testified that he did not steal the lawn mower, and that he had told his
brother not to blame him for the theft. Defendant merely asked whether Ybarra
believed his brother would admit that he stole the lawn mower without Ybarra’s
help, a question which had little or no bearing on whether the prosecution had
made a deal with Ybarra.
Later, when defendant tried to ask Detective Nirschl whether he considered
Ybarra’s apology to Johnny Alvarado for the theft of his lawn mower to be
evidence that Ybarra had participated in the crime, the trial court sustained the
prosecutor’s objection that the question “called for a conclusion.” The court also
sustained the prosecutor’s relevancy objection when defendant asked Detective
Nirschl whether Detective DeLeon, who had also talked to Ybarra, was “excited”
when he commented to Nirschl that Ybarra’s statement provided grounds for
charging defendant with a financial gain special circumstance. Defendant argues
these questions were proper because they were likely to elicit evidence tending to
show that the two detectives believed that Ybarra had participated in the theft of
the lawn mower and that they had an incentive to make a bargain with him. The
questions, however, were only marginally relevant to the underlying issue of
whether the prosecution actually had such an agreement with Ybarra. Thus,
assuming for the sake of argument that the trial court should have overruled the
prosecutor’s objections, the error was harmless under any standard of prejudice.
2. Ybarra’s drug use
In an effort to show that prosecution witness Ybarra was still using heroin
at the time he testified, defense counsel, who apparently noticed Ybarra’s
sniffling, asked on cross-examination whether he had a cold. When Ybarra
blamed the sniffles on the weather, counsel asked if he was still using heroin;
Ybarra replied he was not. Counsel then asked if Ybarra got sniffles when he used
heroin. The trial court sustained the prosecutor’s objection to the last question as
argumentative. Three days later, still during cross-examination, counsel asked if
Ybarra still had a cold. The prosecutor objected without stating a ground, and the
trial court sustained the objection.
In sustaining these two objections, defendant argues, the trial court
deprived him of the opportunity to undermine Ybarra’s testimony by showing that
he was using drugs when he testified. We disagree. Ybarra had denied he was
using drugs, and the questions by the defense were purely rhetorical, implying that
Ybarra’s sniffles were a result of drug use, not a cold, and that by insisting on the
latter Ybarra was lying. Moreover, even if the trial court should have permitted
the questions, the error was harmless, because the jury knew that Ybarra had used
drugs in the past, and whether he was using them at the time of trial was only
tangentially relevant to his veracity as a witness.
3. Information about the murder of Esther Alvarado
Defense counsel asked prosecution witness Ybarra on cross-examination
whether “the people in Grayson were talking about [Alvarado’s murder] a lot” on
the day after it took place. The trial court sustained the prosecutor’s relevancy
Defendant insists the question was relevant and should have been allowed.
He explains that if the residents of Grayson were talking about Alvarado’s murder,
Ybarra could thus have learned details about the murder from them, instead of
through a conversation among defendant, Padilla, and Prado, that Ybarra claimed
to have overheard. Assuming for the sake of argument that defendant is correct,
the error was harmless. Ybarra testified that he had heard about the killing from
Esther Alvarado’s brother and a friend and that he had read about it in the
newspaper. Thus, the jury knew Ybarra could have learned details of the murder
from these sources; whether he had also discussed it with other people in Grayson
was of minimal significance.
4. Confrontation clause
Defendant asserts that by sustaining the above-discussed prosecutorial
objections to his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses Ybarra and Detective
Nirshl, the trial court violated his constitutional right to confront adverse
witnesses. (U.S. Const., 6th & 14th Amends.) We disagree. “The confrontation
clause allows ‘trial judges . . . wide latitude . . . to impose reasonable limits on . . .
cross-examination based on concerns about, among other things, harassment,
prejudice, confusion of the issues, the witness’ safety, or interrogation that is
repetitive or only marginally relevant.’ ” (People v. Clair (1992) 2 Cal.4th 629,
656, fn. 3, quoting Delaware v. Van Arsdale (1986) 475 U.S. 673, 679; see also
People v. Hines (1997) 15 Cal.4th 997, 1047.) Here, the challenged rulings all
pertained to marginally relevant matters; defendant had ample opportunity to
cross-examine Ybarra to probe his veracity.
E. Sufficiency of Evidence of Financial Gain Special Circumstance
The jury found true the special circumstance allegation that defendant
killed Esther Alvarado for “financial gain,” that is, heroin and cocaine he got from
Alfredo Padilla and Brenda Prado for committing the murder. Defendant argues
the evidence was insufficient to support the financial gain special circumstance.
To evaluate this claim, we must “examine the whole record in the light most
favorable to the judgment to determine whether it discloses substantial evidence –
evidence that is reasonable, credible, and of solid value – such that a reasonable
trier of fact could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” (People
v. Kraft (2000) 23 Cal.4th 978, 1053.)
Although there was strong circumstantial evidence identifying defendant as
the one who killed Esther Alvarado, the only evidence that the killing was in
exchange for illegal drugs, and thus the only evidence supporting the financial
gain special circumstance, was the testimony of prosecution witness Anthony
Ybarra, who said he overheard defendant plotting with Alfredo Padilla and Brenda
Prado to kill Alvarado.
Defendant contends Ybarra’s testimony was chronologically impossible,
for reasons discussed below.
Ybarra testified that he arrived at the Grayson house between 10:30 and 11
p.m.; defendant arrived, after dropping off Esther Alvarado at the nearby
Guzman’s Bar, between 11:00 and 11:30 p.m. Ybarra claimed he overheard
defendant, Padilla, and Prado plot to kill Alvarado, after which defendant picked
up Alvarado at Guzman’s Bar and drove away. Lorenzo Guzman, the owner of
the bar, corroborated Ybarra, testifying that Alvarado was in his bar for 15 or 20
minutes and left between 11:30 p.m. and midnight. Ybarra also testified that after
defendant left the Grayson house, Dallas White gave him a ride home.
On cross-examination, the defense impeached Ybarra with his preliminary
hearing testimony that while White was taking him home, they drove by Johnny
Alvarado’s house and saw a sheriff’s patrol car parked there, and Ybarra said to
White that the sheriff’s deputies must be questioning his brother Gilbert about the
lawn mower stolen from Alvarado. (As previously mentioned, Gilbert had left the
Grayson house with Alvarado after Alvarado had recovered the mower from
Gilbert.) Similarly, Dallas White testified that when he drove Ybarra home the
night of Esther Alvarado’s murder, they saw a sheriff’s car in front of Johnny
Alvarado’s house. There was also testimony by the deputy who arrested Gilbert
that the deputy was at Johnny Alvarado’s house from 9:20 p.m. until
approximately 10:30 p.m., and the “booking register” showed that he booked
Gilbert into the county jail shortly thereafter, at 11 p.m.
Defendant reasons that if Ybarra and White saw the sheriff’s car at Johnny
Alvarado’s house, they must have driven by that house before 10:30 p.m. (when
the sheriff’s deputy said he left the house), in which case Ybarra could not have
been at the Grayson house at 11 p.m., when Ybarra said defendant arrived.
Therefore, defendant argues, Ybarra must have lied when he said he overheard
defendant plotting the killing of Esther Alvarado with Padilla and Prado.
Not necessarily so. Ybarra may have been wrong in his time estimate when
he testified that defendant arrived at the Grayson house between 11 and 11:30
p.m.; similarly, bar owner Guzman may have been wrong when he said Esther
Alvarado left the bar between 11:30 and midnight. Neither Ybarra nor Guzman
had any reason to pay close attention to the time when the events in question
occurred, and Ybarra did not have a watch. Thus, Ybarra may have overheard
defendant conspiring with Padilla and Prado at about 10 p.m., which would have
enabled him to see the sheriff’s patrol car on his way home. Alternatively, Ybarra
may have been right in his time estimate, but the car he and White saw on the way
to Ybarra’s house may not have belonged to the sheriff’s deputy who arrested
Gilbert. Either way, the jury could reasonably have concluded that Ybarra
truthfully testified that he heard defendant, Padilla, and Prado planning to kill
Defendant claims that, in an interview with Detective DeLeon introduced at
trial, Ybarra said he heard from Dallas White that defendant had plotted with
Padilla and Prado to kill Esther Alvarado rather than overhearing the conversation
himself. Defendant bases this claim on selective portions of an ambiguous and
nearly incoherent comment Ybarra made at the beginning of the interview. Later
in the interview, however, Ybarra explained that he personally heard defendant,
Padilla, and Prado planning to kill Esther Alvarado.
Defendant argues that Ybarra was not credible because he was a heroin
addict, a liar, a thief, and a police informant. Defendant also points to many minor
discrepancies in Ybarra’s testimony at defendant’s trial, when compared to his
statement to Detective DeLeon and his testimony in other court proceedings. But
the jury knew of Ybarra’s unsavory reputation and the inconsistencies in his
testimony, and it nevertheless believed him. So did the trial court, which
commented at the sentencing hearing that Ybarra’s testimony was “credible
despite some inconsistencies.”
In evaluating the sufficiency of evidence, “the relevant question on appeal
is not whether we are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt” (People v. Perez
(1992) 2 Cal.4th 1117, 1127), but “whether ‘ “any rational trier of fact” ’ could
have been so persuaded” (People v. Lucero (1988) 44 Cal.3d 1006, 1020). Here, a
rational trier of fact could, relying on Ybarra’s testimony, find that defendant
killed Esther Alvarado in exchange for heroin and cocaine, thus supporting the
special circumstance that the killing was for financial gain.
F. Effect of Jury’s Conspiracy Verdict
As previously mentioned, defendant was charged not only with the murder
of Esther Alvarado but also with conspiracy to commit murder. The prosecution
alleged eight overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy. The jury found only
three of these acts true: that defendant met with Alfredo Padilla and Brenda Prado
on the night of January 4-5, 1988, that at the meeting he agreed to kill Esther
Alvarado in exchange for drugs, and that he killed Alvarado in furtherance of the
conspiracy. The jury did not find true the other five alleged overt acts: that
defendant told Padilla and Prado he had left Alvarado at Guzman’s Bar, that
Padilla and Prado told defendant Alvarado was a “rat” who should be killed, that
Padilla and Prado offered defendant drugs to kill Alvarado, that Padilla and Prado
gave defendant drugs at the meeting, and that Padilla offered defendant a shotgun
to use to kill Alvarado.
Defendant notes that prosecution witness Ybarra’s testimony provided the
only evidence of each overt act that the jury did not find true. Therefore, he infers,
the jury must have rejected Ybarra’s testimony. As a result, he argues, the
financial gain special circumstance cannot stand, because Ybarra’s testimony
provided the only evidence to support it.
We disagree. The jury’s findings on the overt acts do not show that it
rejected Ybarra’s testimony. The jury may have decided not to find four of the
alleged overt acts true because they involved conduct not by defendant but by
Padilla and Prado, and the jury may have decided not to find true the fifth alleged
overt act (that defendant told Padilla and Prado he had left Alvarado at the bar)
because it preceded the conspiracy. Alternatively, the jury may have been unable
to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Ybarra correctly remembered every
detail of the conspiracy to kill he overheard among defendant, Padilla, and Prado;
but the jury credited the most significant part of Ybarra’s testimony, namely, that
defendant agreed to kill Alvarado in exchange for drugs. Another possibility is
that the jury, which was instructed to convict defendant of conspiracy so long as it
unanimously agreed that at least one overt act was true, decided that once it
unanimously agreed on three overt acts, it did not have to decide whether the
remaining five acts were true. If the jury relied on any of the theories described
above, it did not reject Ybarra’s testimony.
Even if the jury’s findings on the alleged overt acts were inconsistent with
its finding on the financial gain special circumstance, that inconsistency would
provide no ground for overturning the special circumstance finding. (See
generally People v. Santamaria (1994) 8 Cal.4th 903, 911 [“It is . . . settled that an
inherently inconsistent verdict is allowed to stand . . . .”].)
G. Constitutionality of Financial Gain Special Circumstance as
Applied to This Case
Defendant contends the financial gain special circumstance is
unconstitutional as applied to this case. He claims the prosecution’s evidence
shows that he killed Esther Alvarado to obtain a “fix” to feed his heroin addiction.
He maintains that when the only “financial gain” a defendant hopes to obtain from
a murder are the drugs that will satisfy an addiction, the financial gain special
circumstance fails to “genuinely narrow” the class of persons eligible for the death
penalty, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal
The Attorney General responds that defendant has not preserved this issue
for appeal because he did not raise it at trial. But this court has consistently
considered “as applied” challenges to California’s death penalty law (such as this
one) on their merits without discussing whether they were raised at trial. (See,
e.g., People v. Seaton (2001) 26 Cal.4th 598, 691; People v. Kraft, supra, 23
Cal.4th 978, 1078; People v. Davenport (1995) 11 Cal.4th 1171, 1225; People
v. Garceau (1993) 6 Cal.4th 140, 207; People v. Roberts (1992) 2 Cal.4th 271,
323.) Here, we need not decide whether an objection was necessary to preserve
the issue because, as we shall explain, defendant’s claim lacks merit. (See People
v. Champion (1995) 9 Cal.4th 879, 908, fn. 6 [when the question whether a
defendant has preserved a claim is “close and difficult,” we assume the claim is
preserved and address the merits].)
Contrary to defendant’s argument, there is no evidence that he killed Esther
Alvarado simply to satisfy a drug addiction. Prosecution witness Anthony Ybarra
testified that defendant agreed to commit the murder in exchange for both heroin
and cocaine, but there was no evidence at the guilt phase of trial that he was
addicted to either drug. To the contrary, when defendant was arrested he told
Deputy Sheriff Richard McFarren that although he was beginning to have a drug
problem, he was not an everyday user of drugs and did not have a drug habit.
Defendant did present evidence at the penalty phase that he was addicted to
heroin, but he offered no evidence that he was addicted to cocaine. Thus, even if
we were to assume that the financial gain special circumstance does not apply to
those who commit a murder solely to satisfy a drug habit, and even if we could
consider evidence presented at the penalty phase in determining whether
defendant had such an addiction, the evidence here did not show that this was
defendant’s only motive for killing Esther Alvarado.
In any event, we see no constitutional impediment to a capital punishment
scheme that, like California’s death penalty law, provides that persons who kill for
“financial gain” are eligible for the death penalty, but does not exclude from that
relatively broad category those who commit the murder to obtain drugs to satisfy
an addiction. Defendant argues that if the financial gain special circumstance
encompasses murders committed by addicts in exchange for drugs, it precludes the
jury from considering the murderer’s addiction as a factor in mitigation. Not so.
Nothing in California’s death penalty scheme prevents a defendant from arguing
that a murder committed to satisfy a drug habit is a mitigating circumstance
warranting a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole rather
than death. Indeed, here defendant made precisely that argument to the jury.
H. Special Circumstance Finding on Conspiracy Conviction
The jury convicted defendant not only of the first degree murder of Esther
Alvarado, but also of conspiring to murder her, and it found the financial gain
special circumstances true as to both the murder and the conspiracy to murder.
The trial court sentenced defendant to life imprisonment without possibility of
parole for the crime of conspiracy to commit murder.
Defendant argues that the special circumstances listed in section 190.2,
including murder for financial gain, do not apply to the crime of conspiracy. This
issue also arose in People v. Lawley (2002) 27 Cal.4th 102. There, the Attorney
General conceded that our law did not authorize a special circumstance finding
and death sentence for the crime of conspiracy to commit murder. (Id. at pp. 171-
172; but see id. at p. 173 (conc. opn. of Baxter, J.) [stating that whether special
circumstance allegations can accompany a charge of conspiracy to commit murder
“presents a close and difficult question”].) Here, the Attorney General does not
concede the issue. We therefore address its merits.
California’s conspiracy law states that when two or more persons conspire
to commit murder, “the punishment shall be that prescribed for murder in the first
degree.” (§ 182, subd. (a), italics added.) The Legislature added that language a
half century ago. (Stats. 1955, ch. 660, § 1, p. 1155.) At that time, the
punishment for murder was described in former section 190, which stated in
pertinent part: “Every person guilty of murder in the first degree shall suffer
death, or confinement in the state prison for life, at the discretion of the jury trying
the same; or upon a plea of guilty, the court shall determine the same . . . .” (Stats.
1927, ch. 889, § 1, p. 1952.) In 1955, therefore, the punishment for conspiracy to
commit murder was death or life imprisonment, at the discretion of the jury or the
But defendant and the Attorney General both assume that the Legislature,
when it said the punishment for conspiracy to commit murder “shall be that
prescribed for murder in the first degree,” did not intend to fix the penalty
permanently at the punishment for first degree murder as it existed in 1955, but
rather intended to incorporate by reference changes in the penalty for first degree
murder occurring after that time. We agree. “[W]here a reference to another law
is specific, the reference is to that law as it then existed and not as subsequently
modified, but where the reference is general, . . . ‘the reference is to the law as it
may be changed from time to time.’ ” (People v. Anderson (2002) 28 Cal.4th 767,
779, quoting Palermo v. Stockton Theatres, Inc. (1948) 32 Cal.2d 53, 58-59.)
Because section 182 refers generally to the punishment prescribed for murder in
the first degree, it incorporates whatever punishment the law prescribed for first
degree murder when the conspiracy was committed.
The current law fixing the penalty for first degree murder was enacted by
voter initiative in 1978. Subdivision (a) of section 190, enacted as part of that
initiative, describes the punishment for first degree murder: “Every person guilty
of murder in the first degree shall suffer death, confinement in state prison for life
without the possibility of parole, or confinement in the state prison for a term of
25 years to life. The penalty to be applied shall be determined as provided in
Sections 190.1, 190.2, 190.3, 190.4, and 190.5.” Subdivision (a) of section 190.2
states: “The penalty for a defendant who is found guilty of murder in the first
degree is death or imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility
of parole if one or more . . . special circumstances has been found . . . true . . . .”
Thus, current law prescribes death and life imprisonment without
possibility of parole as punishments for first degree murder, but only when a
special circumstance has been found true. Absent a special circumstance finding,
the punishment for first degree murder is imprisonment for a term of 25 years to
life. Because the punishment for conspiracy to commit murder is “the punishment
. . . prescribed for murder in the first degree” (§ 182, subd. (a)), the punishment for
conspiracy to commit murder can be death or life imprisonment without parole
only if a special circumstance may be alleged and found true as to that crime.
Whether the special circumstances in section 190.2 apply to the crime of
conspiracy to murder is a question of statutory construction. In construing
statutes, we seek to ascertain and effectuate legislative intent. (People v. Gardley
(1996) 14 Cal.4th 605, 621.) We begin with the text of statutes because the words
used are generally the most reliable indicator of legislative intent. (Ibid.)
We find nothing in the wording of the statutes governing special
circumstances indicating that the voters who enacted the 1978 death penalty law
intended that the special circumstances would apply to the crime of conspiracy to
commit murder or indeed to any crime other than murder. The crime of
conspiracy to commit murder is nowhere mentioned in the text of the 1978 death
penalty imitative measure, and the initiative’s provisions rather strongly imply that
special circumstances may be charged and found true only as to the crime of
murder. For example, subdivision (a) of section 190.1 states: “If the trier of fact
finds the defendant guilty of first degree murder, it shall at the same time
determine the truth of all special circumstances charged . . . .” (Italics added.)
We assume the electorate understood that application of special
circumstances to the crime of conspiracy to murder would have practical
significance only when the conspirators did not succeed in killing their intended
victim. If they did kill the victim, the conspirators could be charged with murder,
and the special circumstance could be alleged for that crime. The prosecution
would gain no apparent advantage in charging special circumstances also as to the
separate of crime of conspiracy to murder. Under Penal Code section 654, a
defendant may not be punished for both the murder and the conspiracy (People
v. Moringlane (1982) 127 Cal.App.3d 811, 819); in any event, the punishments of
death and life without possibility of parole may only be imposed on a defendant
once. Thus, the 1978 electorate would have no reason to want the special
circumstances adopted by the 1978 initiative to be applicable to a successful
conspiracy to commit murder. We consider, then, whether there is any basis to
conclude that the electorate intended to make capital punishment available for
those engaged in an unsuccessful conspiracy to commit murder.
To determine the voters’ intent, we consider the analyses and arguments in
the official ballot pamphlet for the election at which the 1978 death penalty
initiative was adopted. (See People v. Rizo (2000) 22 Cal.4th 681, 685; People v.
Birkett (1999) 21 Cal.4th 226, 243.) Like the text of the initiative itself, the
analyses and arguments in the official ballot pamphlet for the election at which the
1978 death penalty initiative was adopted contain no mention of the crime of
conspiracy to commit murder and no suggestion that the special circumstances
enumerated in section 190.2 would apply to the crime of conspiracy to commit
murder or to any crime other than murder.
Another aid in determining legislative intent is “the history and background
of the measure” (People v. Birkett, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 232), including “the
wider historical circumstances of its enactment” (Dyna-Med, Inc. v. Fair
Employment & Housing Com. (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1379, 1387; accord, County of
Santa Clara v. Perry (1998) 18 Cal.4th 435, 442). In 1978, when the electorate
adopted the current death penalty law, it was unclear whether the federal
Constitution permitted imposition of the death penalty for the crime of conspiracy
to murder. Just the preceding year, in Coker v. Georgia (1977) 433 U.S. 584
(Coker), six justices of the United States Supreme Court had held that imposing
the death penalty for rape was cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the
Eighth Amendment to the federal Constitution. (Coker, at p. 592 (plur. opn.); id.
at p. 600 (conc. opns. of Brennan, J. & Marshall, J.).) Although the high court did
not expressly hold that the Eighth Amendment prohibits capital punishment for all
crimes not resulting in death, the plurality stressed that the crucial difference
between rape and murder is that a rapist “does not take human life.” (Coker, at
p. 598.) The same day on which it decided Coker, the high court, in a one-
paragraph per curium opinion, vacated a death sentence for the crime of
aggravated kidnapping, stating that the sentence was cruel and unusual
punishment. (Eberheart v. Georgia (1977) 433 U.S. 917.)
We assume the electorate is aware of relevant judicial decisions when it
adopts legislation by initiative. (People v. Clark (1990) 50 Cal.3d 583, 602;
People v. Burton (1989) 48 Cal.3d 843, 861.) Thus, we assume that in 1978,
when it adopted the current death penalty law, the California electorate was aware
of the United State Supreme Court’s then recent decisions in Coker, supra, 433
U.S. 584, and Eberheart v. Georgia, supra, 433 U.S. 917, raising serious doubts
that the federal Constitution permitted the death penalty for any offense not
requiring the actual taking of human life. It is reasonable to infer that the
electorate, having this knowledge, intended to ensure the constitutionality of death
penalty law by restricting capital punishment to the crime of first degree murder.
Further, it is reasonable to infer that the electorate intended to accomplish this
restriction by authorizing the special circumstances that would establish eligibility
for capital punishment only for murder in the first degree, as indicated by the
wording of subdivision (a) of section 190.1 stating that a trier of fact would
determine the truth of a special circumstance allegation only “[i]f the trier of fact
finds the defendant guilty of first degree murder . . . .”
We also assume the voters are aware of punishments for comparable
California crimes when they adopt punitive legislation. In November 1978, when
the initiative death penalty law was enacted by the electorate, the penalty for most
forms of attempted willful and premeditated murder was five, six, or seven years.
(Former § 664, subd. 1, as amended by Stats. 1976, ch. 1139, § 265, p. 5137; see
§§ 187, 189, former § 190, as added by Stats. 1977, ch. 316, § 5, p. 1256.)
September 1978 legislative amendments had increased that punishment, effective
January 1, 1979, but only to five, seven, or nine years (former § 664, subd. (1), as
amended by Stats. 1978, ch. 579, § 27, p. 1986; Stats. 1978, ch. 1166, § 2,
p. 3771). Years later, the Legislature further increased the punishment for
attempted willful and premeditated murder, but only to life imprisonment with the
possibility of parole (former § 664, subd. (1), as amended by Stats. 1986, ch. 519,
§ 2, p. 1859), where it remains today (§ 664, subd. (a).)
Though conspiracy is often punished more severely than attempt, it seems
unlikely the voters intended to allow the death penalty for a conspiracy to murder,
which requires only a conspirator’s overt act in furtherance of the murderous plot
(§ 184), at a time when the maximum punishment for attempted willful and
premeditated murder, which requires a direct, though ineffectual, premeditated
murderous act (§ 21a), was five, seven, or nine years in prison. This further
supports our conclusion that the special circumstances in section 190.2 do not
apply to conspiracy to murder.
Two additional rules of statutory construction also favor the conclusion that
the special circumstances adopted by the 1978 death penalty law do not apply to
crimes, like conspiracy to commit murder, that do not require the actual taking of
human life. When determining the scope of an initiative, we “assume that the
voters intended the measure to be valid and construe it to avoid ‘serious’ doubts as
to its constitutionality if that can be done ‘without doing violence to the reasonable
meaning of the language.’ ” (San Francisco Taxpayers Assn. v. Board of
Supervisors (1992) 2 Cal.4th 571, 581.) Here, a construction of the 1978 death
penalty law as permitting capital punishment for an offense like conspiracy to
commit murder that does not require the actual taking of human would raise a
serious constitutional question. Since the United States Supreme Court’s 1977
decisions in Coker, supra, 433 U.S. 584, and Eberheart v. Georgia, supra, 433
U.S. 917, there have been no executions in this country for crimes that did not
involve the victim’s death. (See Note, What if the Victim is a Child? Examining
the Constitutionality of Louisiana’s Challenge to Coker v. Georgia (2000) 2000
Ill. L.Rev. 347, 360.) As a result, whether the federal Constitution bars imposition
of the death penalty for crimes not resulting in death remains an unresolved issue.
(See State v. Polk (La. 1979) 376 So.2d 151 [relying on Coker and Eberheart to
invalidate law imposing the death penalty for aggravated kidnapping]; State v.
Gardner (Utah 1997) 947 P.2d 630 [relying on Coker to invalidate law imposing
the death penalty for aggravated assault by a prisoner serving a sentence for a
“felony of the first degree”]; but see State v. Wilson (La. 1996) 685 So.2d 1063
[distinguishing Coker to uphold law imposing the death penalty for rape of a child
under the age of 12].) The issue continues to be the subject of considerable
scholarly debate. (See, e.g., Note, Murdering Innocence: The Constitutionality of
Capital Child Rape Statutes (2003) 45 Ariz. L.Rev. 197; Broughton, “On
Horror’s Head Horrors Accumulate”: A Reflective Comment on Capital Child
Rape Legislation (2000) 39 Duq. L.Rev. 1; Note, What if the Victim is a Child?
Examining the Constitutionality of Louisiana’s Challenge to Coker v. Georgia
(2000) 2000 Ill. L.Rev. 347; Fleming, Louisiana’s Newest Capital Crime: The
Death Penalty for Child Rape (1999) 89 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 717; Bailey,
Death Is Different, Even on the Bayou: The Disproportionality of Crime and
Punishment in Louisiana’s Capital Child Rape Statute (1998) 55 Wash. & Lee
L.Rev. 1335; Higgins, Is Capital Punishment for Killers Only? (Aug. 1997) 83
A.B.A. J. 30; Comment, Coker v. Georgia: Disproportionate Punishment and the
Death Penalty for Rape (1978) 78 Colum. L.Rev. 1714; Comment, Death Penalty
for Rape (1977) 91 Harv. L.Rev. 123.)
A survey published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical agency
of the United States Department of Justice, lists no state with a law allowing the
death penalty for conspiracy to murder. But several states, as well as the federal
government, have laws authorizing the death penalty for other crimes that do not
necessarily involve the victim’s death, such as treason, espionage, air piracy,
aggravated kidnapping, and rape of a child. (Snell and Maruschak, Capital
Punishment 2001, Bur. of Justice Statistics Bull., Dec. 2002, p. 2,
<http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cp01.pdf> [as of June 2, 2003].)
Because the constitutionality of laws imposing the death penalty for crimes
not necessarily resulting in death is unresolved, and because we do not know of
any state that allows a sentence of death for conspiracy to murder, we are reluctant
to find that the electorate intended to authorize the death penalty for that offense
absent clear evidence, of which we have found none, of that intent.
The last rule of statutory construction we consider is known as the rule of
lenity. This rule states that when “two reasonable interpretations of the same
provision stand in relative equipoise, i.e., . . . resolution of the statute’s
ambiguities in a convincing manner is impracticable,” we construe the provision
most favorably to the defendant. (People v. Jones (1988) 46 Cal.3d 585, 599; see
also People v. Avery (2002) 27 Cal.4th 49, 58.) Here, as we have seen, the 1978
death penalty law is most plausibly construed as not authorizing the charging of
special circumstances for the crime of conspiracy to commit murder. But even if
such a construction were no more plausible than the alternative, the rule of lenity
would add decisive weight in favor of that construction.
Accordingly, we hold that under sections 182 and 189 through 190.2, the
punishment for conspiracy to commit murder is the punishment for first degree
murder without special circumstances.
III. PENALTY PHASE ISSUES
A. Admission of Evidence of Crime of Which Defendant Had Been
In a discussion in chambers before the penalty phase began, the prosecutor
told the trial court he intended to offer evidence that defendant, while in custody
awaiting trial, stabbed Deputy Sheriff William Legg. The prosecutor said
defendant had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon on two persons—
Deputy Legg and inmate Kenny Mitchell—and that a jury had acquitted defendant
of assaulting Mitchell with a deadly weapon but found him guilty of the lesser
included offense of assault on Legg. The Attorney General now concedes that this
representation was untrue. The jury had actually acquitted defendant of assaulting
Legg with a deadly weapon while convicting him of the lesser offense of assault
Based on the prosecutor’s inaccurate representation, the trial court
permitted him to introduce evidence of defendant’s assault on Deputy Legg. The
latter testified to seeing defendant holding a four- to-six-inch-long piece of metal
that had a piece of cloth wrapped around the middle, and receiving “two small stab
wounds” from the weapon.
In closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury: “What’s [defendant] like
in jail? Well, ask Deputy Legg. . . . [Defendant] either acquires or makes what
Legg defines for you as a shank, a jail-made knife, and Legg walks up and sees it
in the defendant’s hand. He confronts him about it and gets cut. Admittedly not
major injuries, luckily. This is the man whose choice you have to send him to
prison with other prisoners and guards for the rest of his life. What do you expect
from him? What has he brutally taught you as part of this community that he is all
about? . . . He’ll get himself some dope in prison and you know he can. . . . And
if he accesses some of the . . . gangs, that have a readily accessible reliable,
repeated supply source to the . . . dope, . . . all he has got to do is pay the piper just
like he has already paid Brenda Prado and Alfredo Padilla with services instead of
money. [¶] It is nice, you’ve got a knack for acquiring or making jail-made
knives, that’s helpful. That’s all he has got to do.”
We previously granted defendant’s request that we take judicial notice of
the minute order in Stanislaus County Superior Court file, case No. 246029, which
demonstrates the inaccuracy of the prosecutor’s statement. (See Evid. Code,
§§ 452, subd. (d) [judicial notice may be taken of the records of any court of this
state], 452.5 [pertaining to court records relating to criminal convictions]; People
v. Lawley, supra, 27 Cal.4th 102, 163, fn. 24.)
Later, in his rebuttal, the prosecutor also mentioned the assault on Legg in
response to defense counsel’s reference to the educational programs in which
defendant had participated while at the California Youth Authority: “Contrast [the
educational programs] with stabbing one of his guards, one of his jailers, cutting
them with a shank. Which do you think is more significant? Which do you think
tells you more about the individual? That . . . he may . . . have been cajoled . . .
into an educational program . . . ? . . . [¶] Or a man . . . facing a first degree
murder charge and a special circumstance allegation . . . and in the face of that,
knowing that that’s coming up . . . , he’s got a shank in his hand and he cuts his
jailer. [¶] What tells you more about the man?”
Defendant contends the trial court should have excluded all evidence of his
attack on Deputy Legg and the prosecutor should not have relied on that attack in
his argument to the jury. We agree. Section 190.3 provides that “in no event shall
evidence of prior criminal activity be admitted for an offense for which the
defendant was prosecuted and acquitted.” This section applies here because
defendant was “prosecuted and acquitted” of assaulting Legg.
Defendant did not object to the evidence of the attack on Deputy Legg or to
the prosecutor’s argument. But his failure to do so was excusable, in light of the
prosecutor’s inaccurate representation to the trial court that defendant had been
convicted of the assault. Thus, the Attorney General does not contend that
defendant has forfeited the claim by lack of objection, and we need not consider
defendant’s alternative claim that counsel was incompetent for not objecting.
We discuss the prejudicial effect of the prosecution’s use of the evidence
that petitioner stabbed Deputy Legg in part III. E., post.
B. Admission of Evidence that Robert Caseri Feared Defendant Was
Going to Kill Him
At the penalty phase of trial, the prosecution introduced evidence that
defendant had committed the uncharged murder of Robert Caseri. As part of that
evidence, Robert Caseri’s sister, Karen Hatcher, testified over defense objection
that a week before Caseri’s disappearance he told her of his fear that defendant,
Earl Rodrigues, and Arnulfo DeLeon were going to kill him; and he again said so
at lunch with her two days later. Hatcher further testified, also over objection, that
after Caseri disappeared she spoke to bartender Sal Banda at the Red Lion
Cocktail Lounge. Banda said that on the last night Caseri was seen alive, Banda
had offered to take him to the hospital after defendant had beaten him up, but
Caseri refused to go, saying that defendant and Rodrigues were “going to get” him
Defendant contends the trial court should not have admitted Hatcher’s
testimony. We agree.
Caseri’s statements to Hatcher and to Banda may have been relevant to
prove that defendant killed him, but for that purpose they were inadmissible
hearsay. (People v. Noguera (1992) 4 Cal.4th 599, 620-621 (Noguera); People
v. Armendariz (1984) 37 Cal.3d 573, 588; Evid. Code, § 1250, subd. (b).) The
Assembly Judiciary Committee’s official comments to Evidence Code section
1250 mention inadmissibility of a murder victim’s expressed fear of the person
charged with the murder when the purpose is to prove the killer’s identity.
According to these comments, People v. Merkouris (1959) 52 Cal.2d 672, an early
decision of this court that allowed such evidence, “is based on a rationale that
destroys the very foundation of the hearsay rule.” (Assem. Judiciary Com. com.,
29B Pt.4 West’s Ann. Evid. Code (1995 ed.) § 1250, pp. 280-282.) The Attorney
General, however, argues the statements were admissible for a different purpose:
to prove Caseri’s state of mind. As we shall explain, he is wrong.
Subdivision (a) of Evidence Code section 1250 permits hearsay evidence of
a declarant’s state of mind when “the declarant’s state of mind . . . is itself an issue
in the action” or when it is “offered to prove or explain acts or conduct of the
declarant.” A prerequisite to this exception to the hearsay rule is that the
declarant’s mental state or conduct be factually relevant. (Noguera, supra, 4
Cal.4th at p. 620; see also People v. Ruiz (1988) 44 Cal.3d 589, 608.) A murder
victim’s fear of the alleged killer may be in issue when the victim’s state of mind
is directly relevant to an element of an offense. (See, e.g., People v. Thompson
(1988) 45 Cal.3d 86, 103-104 [decedent’s fear of the defendant relevant to refute
the defendant’s claim that they engaged in consensual sexual intercourse before
her death, and thus to prove an alleged rape-murder special circumstance].) That
fear may also be in issue when, according to the defendant, the victim has behaved
in a manner inconsistent with that fear (see, e.g., People v. Lew (1968) 68 Cal.2d
774, 778-780 [decedent’s fear relevant to disprove the defendant’s claim that she
was sitting on his lap and examining his gun when it accidentally discharged]).
Here, however, neither murder victim Caseri’s mental state nor his conduct was an
issue in the case.
The Attorney General contends that Caseri’s fear of defendant was relevant
to explain why Caseri remained at the Red Lion Cocktail Lounge after defendant
attacked him. Caseri’s alleged fear does raise a question as to why he remained at
the Red Lion, but it provides no answer to that question. Moreover, the reason
why Caseri remained at the Red Lion was not at issue. The only issue was
whether defendant or someone else had killed Caseri. In previous decisions, we
have repeatedly rejected similar claims by the Attorney General that the victim’s
fear of the defendant was relevant to the victim’s state of mind or conduct. (See,
e.g., Noguera, supra, 4 Cal.4th at p. 622 [victim’s state of mind and conduct not in
issue when the only issue was defendant’s identity]; People v. Ruiz, supra, 44
Cal.3d at p. 608 [victims’ state of mind and conduct not in issue]; People
v. Bunyard (1988) 45 Cal.3d 1189, 1204; People v. Armendariz, supra, 37 Cal.3d
at pp. 584-588; People v. Arcega (1982) 32 Cal.3d 504, 526-527; People
v. Ireland (1969) 70 Cal.2d 522, 529.)
We consider the prejudicial effect of the trial court’s erroneous admission
of Hatcher’s testimony in part III. E., post.
C. Failure to Instruct on Accomplice Liability
As mentioned earlier, Earl Rodrigues (defendant’s brother-in-law) testified
for the prosecution, and the prosecution also introduced out-of-court statements
Rodrigues had made to Patterson Police Officer Tony Zavala. The prosecution
used Rodrigues’s testimony and statements to show that defendant was drinking
with Robert Caseri the last night he was seen alive; that threats were exchanged
between defendant and Caseri; that in a fight with Caseri outside the Red Lion
Cocktail Lounge, defendant slammed Caseri’s head onto the pavement; that Caseri
later left the lounge with defendant; and that defendant used Rodrigues’s car that
Defendant argues that Rodrigues may have been an accomplice to Caseri’s
murder, and the trial court should therefore have given the standard instructions on
accomplices: CALJIC No. 3.10 [accomplice defined], CALJIC No. 3.11
[accomplice testimony must be corroborated], CALJIC No. 3.12 [sufficiency of
evidence to corroborate an accomplice], and CALJIC No. 3.18 [jury should view
accomplice testimony with distrust].
As we explained in People v. Mincey (1992) 2 Cal.4th 408, 461: “When
the prosecution calls an accomplice as a witness, the trial court must instruct the
jury that the witness’s testimony should be viewed with distrust. [Citation] This
rule applies to both the penalty and the guilt phases of a death penalty case.
[Citation] In addition, when the prosecution seeks to introduce evidence of the
defendant’s unadjudicated prior criminal conduct, the jury should be instructed at
the penalty phase that accomplice testimony must be corroborated.” (See also
People v. Williams (1997) 16 Cal.4th 153, 275; People v. Varnum (1967) 66
Cal.2d 808, 814-815.) Although defendant here apparently did not request the
instructions, we have held that when the prosecution uses accomplice testimony at
the penalty phase of a capital case to show that the defendant has engaged in
violent criminal acts, the trial court must give the instructions on its own initiative,
unless the defendant has been convicted of the crime to which the penalty phase
testimony pertains. (People v. Williams, supra, 16 Cal.4th at pp. 275-276; People
v. Mincey, supra, 2 Cal.4th at p. 461; see also People v. Tobias (2001) 25 Cal.4th
The Attorney General contends the jury could not have found that
Rodrigues was an accomplice to Caseri’s killing, so the accomplice instructions
were unnecessary. We disagree. Apart from the statements of Rodrigues himself,
most of the evidence pointing to defendant as Caseri’s killer applied equally to
Rodrigues: (1) Before Caseri died he told his sister (Karen Hatcher) and Red Lion
bartender Sal Banda that defendant and Rodrigues were going to kill him;4
(2) Rodrigues, like defendant, was with Caseri the last time he was seen alive;
(3) Rodrigues accompanied defendant outside the Red Lion bar when defendant
attacked Caseri; (4) Rodrigues was related to defendant by marriage to his sister,
and transported him to and from the bar where Caseri was last seen; (5) the
As explained in part III.B., ante, this evidence was inadmissible.
prosecution hypothesized that Rodrigues’s car was used to take Caseri’s body to
the canal where it was found; bloodstains were found in the car, and Rodrigues’s
brother removed the rear seat (which would have been bloody if it had been used
to transport Caseri) before the police could examine it. Indeed, the jury was told
that Rodrigues, like defendant, was arrested for the murder of Caseri, although the
district attorney’s office did not file charges against either of them.
This evidence was insufficient to show that Rodrigues was an accomplice
as a matter of law. Nor did it establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Rodrigues
helped to kill Caseri. It was enough, however, to permit a jury to conclude by a
preponderance of the evidence that Rodrigues was an accomplice, in which event
the jury would have to apply the rule that accomplice testimony must be
corroborated and must be viewed with distrust. By not giving the requisite
instructions on accomplice testimony, the trial court erred. We discuss the
prejudicial effect of this error in part III. E., post.
D. Jury Instruction Pertaining to Others Involved in Criminal Activity
At the penalty phase, the trial court read to the jury an instruction based on
CALJIC No. 2.11.5: “There has been evidence in this case indicating that a
person other than defendant was or may have also been involved in the criminal
activity [in] which the defendant is alleged to have been involved. [¶] There may
be many reasons why such person is not here on trial. Therefore, do not discuss or
give any consideration to why the other person is not being prosecuted in this trial,
whether he has been or will be prosecuted. Your sole duty is to decide whether
the People have proved that the defendant was involved in such criminal activity.”
Defendant asserts that the only person to whom this instruction pertained
was prosecution witness Earl Rodrigues, who along with defendant was arrested
for the murder of Bobby Caseri although, like defendant, he was never charged
with the crime. Defendant argues that the trial court should not have given the
instruction because Rodrigues testified, thus entitling the jury to consider why
Rodrigues had not been prosecuted in evaluating his credibility as a witness.
The instruction was indeed improper. We have often said that trial courts
should not give CALJIC 2.11.5 in an unmodified form when, as here, a person
who might have been prosecuted for the crime has testified at trial. (People
v. Lawley, supra, 27 Cal.4th at p. 162; People v. Williams, supra, 16 Cal.4th at
pp. 226-227; People v. Cain (1995) 10 Cal.4th 1, 35; People v. Hardy (1992) 2
Cal.4th 86, 190; People v. Price (1991) 1 Cal.4th 324, 446; People v. Cox (1991)
53 Cal.3d 618, 667.) We consider the prejudicial effect of this error in part III. E.,
The prosecution witnesses at the penalty phase testified that defendant
committed three crimes: the murder of Robert Caseri, the stabbing of Deputy
Legg, and the robbery of Mary Toste and her mother. (The prosecution also
introduced documentary evidence that defendant had been convicted of burglary.)
As explained above, there was serious error regarding the evidence pertaining to
the first two of these crimes.5
There may also have been serious error pertaining to the evidence of the
robbery of Mary Toste and her mother. In a habeas corpus petition, defendant
alleges his lead trial counsel, Kirk McAllister, a former deputy district attorney,
had prosecuted him for the Toste robbery. McAllister may have intended that
second counsel, Attorney Howard Tangle, would cross-examine Toste when she
testified about the robbery at the penalty phase. When Tangle became ill,
McAllister associated another attorney, Ramon Magana, to cross-examine Toste.
But, defendant alleges, McAllister did not ask Magana to participate in the case
until the day before Toste was called as a witness, and Magana did not talk to
defendant before Toste testified. The record supports part of this claim: After
Toste testified on direct examination, Magana made a highly unusual request for a
(Footnote continued on next page.)
The evidence that defendant murdered Caseri was not overwhelming, as the
prosecution implicitly acknowledged when it declined to prosecute defendant after
his arrest for the crime. Given the weakness of the prosecution’s case, the
erroneously admitted evidence of Caseri’s fear that defendant was going to kill
him may have weighed heavily in the jury’s determination whether defendant
committed the murder. As this court rhetorically asked in People v. Hamilton
(1961) 55 Cal.2d 881, 898: “How could this jury avoid the ‘reverberating clang’
of these accusations from the grave?” Our response: “The answer is that this is an
impossible mental feat.” (Ibid; see also People v. Coleman (1985) 38 Cal.3d 69,
85 [“[W]hen declarations pertaining to threats of future conduct by the accused are
. . . admitted for the limited purpose of demonstrating the mental state of the
declarant . . . it is impossible to limit the prejudicial and inflammatory effect of
this type of hearsay evidence.”].)
The prejudicial effect of the trial court’s erroneous admission of Caseri’s
fear that defendant would kill him was compounded by the court’s failure to give
(Footnote continued from previous page.)
five-minute recess before cross-examining so he could talk to defendant,
explaining that he had not been able to meet with him. The trial court granted the
request. On the record, defendant summarily waived “any conflict there may be”
arising from Attorney McAllister’s earlier involvement in prosecuting him for the
Toste robbery, but McAllister merely mentioned that he was “involved in some of
the Minute Orders” without explaining his role as prosecutor at the Toste robbery
In his habeas corpus petition, defendant asserts that the representation by
his attorneys pertaining to the robbery was incompetent, that Attorney McAllister
had a conflict of interest with respect to the robbery, and that defendant’s waiver
of the conflict was invalid because he was not adequately advised of the nature of
the conflict. Because we reverse defendant’s judgment of death, we need not
address these claims, which in any event could be considered only on habeas
the jury the standard accomplice instructions as to prosecution witness Earl
Rodrigues. The latter’s observations, presented through his own testimony and his
statements to Officer Tony Zavala, were crucial, because he was the only witness
who saw defendant attack Caseri outside the Red Lion Cocktail Lounge; and he
was the only witness who saw Caseri and defendant leave the Red Lion together.
The jury’s evaluation of this evidence may well have been affected by the trial
court’s failure to instruct the jury that if it considered Rodrigues an accomplice it
should regard his statements and testimony with suspicion.
Of less significance, but not to be ignored, is the trial court’s erroneous
instruction that the jury should not consider why Rodrigues was not being
prosecuted for Caseri’s murder. We have frequently said that a jury is not misled
by this instruction when the trial court gives the standard instructions on
accomplice liability. (See, e.g., People v. Lawley, supra, 27 Cal.4th at p. 162;
People v. Cain, supra, 10 Cal.4th at p. 35; People v. Price, supra, 1 Cal.4th at
pp. 445-446.) Here, however, the court did not give those instructions.
These errors, considered together, may have fatally distorted the jury’s
consideration of the prosecution’s most important aggravating evidence: that
defendant killed Robert Caseri. Moreover, the trial court’s erroneous admission of
evidence that defendant stabbed Deputy Legg while awaiting trial may have
further skewed the jury’s penalty evaluation. The prosecutor effectively used
evidence of that incident, of which defendant had been acquitted, to argue that if
the jury returned a verdict of life imprisonment without possibility of parole,
defendant would remain a danger to those around him and might well kill again.
When an error or a combination of errors occurs at the penalty phase of a
capital case, we reverse the judgment if there is a “reasonable possibility” that the
jury would have reached a different result if the error or errors had not occurred.
(People v. Brown (1988) 46 Cal.3d 432, 448.) Here, the errors at the penalty
phase were numerous and serious. There is a reasonable possibility that,
considered together, they affected the jury’s penalty determination.
Although they do not affect our disposition here, we also note with concern
these facts: (1) An important prosecution witness at the penalty phase was cross-
examined by a defense attorney who may have been retained only the previous
day and apparently never spoke to defendant until after the witness testified on
direct examination (see p. 42, fn. 5, ante); (2) Although defendant’s lead counsel
had in a previous case prosecuted him for a robbery, evidence of which was
introduced against defendant at the penalty phase, the record contains little
evidence that defendant was made aware of the dangers and potential drawbacks
of this possible conflict of interest (ibid.); (3) A prosecutor who was a potential
witness and had already testified at a codefendant’s trial conducted part of the voir
dire of prospective jurors (see issue II. A., ante); (4) The trial court violated its
statutory duty to have a court reporter present during bench conferences and the
instruction conference (§ 190.9). In a death penalty case, we expect the trial court
and the attorneys to proceed with the utmost care and diligence and with the most
scrupulous regard for fair and correct procedure. The proceedings here fell well
short of this goal.
We vacate the special circumstance found true as to count II (conspiracy to
commit murder) as well as the sentence of life without possibility of parole
imposed for the conspiracy conviction. The judgment of death is reversed.
GEORGE, C. J.
CONCURRING OPINION BY BAXTER, J.
I agree with affirming the murder and conspiracy convictions, affirming the
weapon and special circumstance findings for the murder, but reversing the
murder penalty judgment. I accept the majority’s analysis of those issues.
I also agree that we should vacate the special circumstance finding as to the
conviction for conspiracy to commit murder (Pen. Code, § 182, subd. (a);
hereafter § 182(a)),1 and the resulting sentence of life without parole on that count.
For various reasons to which the majority allude, it is unclear that the voters, when
adopting the 1978 initiative death penalty law, intended to apply its special capital
punishment provisions not only to actual first degree murder, but also to the
separate crime of conspiracy to commit murder.
I am particularly influenced by the disparity that would otherwise have
arisen between the maximum punishment for conspiracy to commit murder on the
one hand, and that provided in 1978 for attempted willful and premeditated
murder on the other. (See maj. opn., ante, at pp. 31-32.) Under these
circumstances, and particularly where the ultimate penalty of death is at stake, we
should, as the majority suggest, apply the rule of lenity and give defendants the
benefit of the doubt. As a result, under current law, the punishment for a
All further unlabeled statutory references are to the Penal Code.
conspiracy to commit murder, no matter how aggravated, is 25 years to life.
(§§ 182(a), 190, subd. (a).)
I do wish to stress, however, that nothing the majority say forecloses the
Legislature, or the electorate, from clearly providing that particular kinds of
aggravated murder conspiracies are subject to greater punishment, including death
or life without parole. To support their conclusion that the voters who adopted the
1978 initiative death penalty law did not intend that result, the majority presume
the voters were aware of two 1977 United States Supreme Court decisions,
decided the same day, that may raise a question whether the death penalty is
constitutional for crimes which do not involve the actual taking of human life.
(Coker v. Georgia (1977) 433 U.S. 584 (Coker); Eberheart v. Georgia (1977)
433 U.S. 917 (Eberheart).) But as the majority concede with good reason, that
issue is not resolved, and we do not resolve it here. Indeed, in light of
contemporary realities, there are substantial reasons to question whether the
current high court would invalidate a carefully drafted statute that allowed death
or life without parole for limited categories of aggravated murder conspiracies
even when human life was not lost.
At the outset, the results in both Coker and Eberheart were skewed by the
views of two members of that court that the death penalty is always
unconstitutional. (See Coker, supra, 433 U.S. 584, 600 (conc. opn. of
Brennan, J.); id. at pp. 600-601 (conc. opn. of Marshall, J.).) In Coker, only four
other justices appeared to conclude that the nonlethal crime there at issue—rape—
could never support a death judgment. (Id. at pp. 586-600 (plur. opn. of White,
J.).) A fifth left open the possibility that especially brutal and injurious rapes
might qualify (id. at pp. 601-604 (conc. opn. of Powell, J.)), and two others
concluded, at a minimum, that rape with a past record of capital crimes should
qualify (id. at pp. 604-622 (dis. opn. of Burger, C.J., joined by Rehnquist, J.)).
Eberheart, supra, 433 U.S. 917, a one-paragraph per curiam opinion, cited Coker,
but provided no other clue why one may not be executed for the crime at issue in
that case—aggravated kidnapping.
In the intervening quarter-century, the high court has not returned to the
question of what crimes are constitutionally exempt from capital punishment. Of
course there is little doubt, under the Eighth Amendment, that the extreme
penalties of death and life without parole must be reserved for the most serious
and heinous of offenses. But as recent events have demonstrated, murder
conspiracies—which, by their nature, target human life—can rise to very high
levels of danger and depravity.
Suppose an Al Quaeda cell or antigovernment paramilitarists conspired to
blow up the Golden Gate Bridge at rush hour, or the state Capitol during business
hours, seeking to kill everyone caught in the blast, but fortunately were thwarted
as they lay in wait to detonate their explosive device. Suppose a team of freeway
snipers, operating in California with murderous intent, had wounded dozens,
caused scores of dangerous auto accidents, and panicked the population of an
entire region, but by pure luck had not succeeded in killing anyone. Suppose
organized criminals, with the means to accomplish their goal, conspired and
prepared, but ultimately failed, to assassinate numerous California judges, law
enforcement officers, and witnesses who stood in the way of their racketeering or
drug-running activities. Suppose White supremacists conspired and prepared to
set an African-American church afire during Sunday services, but were prevented
at the last minute from carrying out their plan. In my view, a carefully crafted
statute providing capital penalties for such egregious conspiracies might well
survive constitutional scrutiny.
The decision whether to adopt such a statute is for the Legislature or the
voters. My comments here are intended only to dispel any notion, which might
otherwise arise from the majority’s decision, that an attempt to do so would face
certain constitutional invalidation.
See next page for addresses and telephone numbers for counsel who argued in Supreme Court.
Name of Opinion People v. Hernandez
Original Appeal XXX
Opinion No. S020244
Date Filed: June 2, 2003
Judge: Charles V. Stone
Attorneys for Appellant:
Fern M. Laethem and Lynne S. Coffin, State Public Defenders, under appointments by the Supreme Court,
Alison Pease and John Fresquez, Deputy State Public Defenders, for Defendant and Appellant.
Attorneys for Respondent:
Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, David P. Druliner, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson,
Assistant Attorney General, Ward A. Campbell, Louis M. Vasquez and Robert P. Whitlock, Deputy
Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.
Counsel who argued in Supreme Court (not intended for publication with opinion):
Deputy State Public Defender
801 K Street, Suite 1100
Sacramento, CA 95814
Robert P. Whitlock
Deputy Attorney General
2550 Mariposa Mall, Room 5090
Fresno, CA 93721
|1||The People (Respondent)|
Represented by Attorney General - Fresno Office
Robert P. Whitlock, deputy
2550 Mariposa Mall, Rm. 5090
|2||Hernandez, Jesus Cianez (Appellant)|
Represented by Office Of The State Public Defender-Sac
John Fresquez / Jay Colangelo, deputies
801 K St., Suite 1100
|Jun 2 2003||Opinion: Reversed|
|Mar 21 1991||Judgment of death|
|Mar 29 1991||Filed certified copy of Judgment of Death Rendered|
|Apr 9 1991||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Court Reporters to Complete R.T.
|Apr 10 1991||Extension of Time application Granted|
To Court Reporters To 6-10-91 To Complete R.T.
|Jun 29 1994||Order appointing State Public Defender filed|
Upon request of appellant for appointment of counsel, the Office of the State Public Defender is hereby appointed to represent appellant on his automatic appeal now pending in this court, including any related habeas proceedings.
|Sep 19 1994||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to request correction of Record.
|Sep 21 1994||Extension of Time application Granted|
To Applt To 11-18-94 To request Corr. of Record.
|Nov 16 1994||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to request correction of Record.
|Nov 21 1994||Extension of Time application Granted|
To Applt To 1-17-95 To request Corr. of Record.
|Jan 12 1995||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to request correction of the Record.
|Jan 17 1995||Extension of Time application Granted|
To Applt To 3-20-95 To request Corr. of Record.
|Mar 13 1995||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to request correction of Record.
|Mar 20 1995||Extension of Time application Granted|
To Applt To 5-19-95 To request Corr. of Record.
|May 11 1995||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to request correction of Record.
|May 16 1995||Extension of Time application Granted|
To Applt To 7-18-95 To request Corr. of Record.
|Jul 12 1995||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to request correction of the Record.
|Jul 18 1995||Extension of Time application Granted|
To Applt To 9-18-95 To request Corr. of Record.
|Sep 18 1995||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to request correction of the Record.
|Sep 22 1995||Extension of Time application Granted|
To Applt To 10-3-95 To request Corr. of Record. no further Extensions of time Are Contemplated.
|Oct 23 1995||Received:|
Copy of Applt's request for correction, Completion & Settlement of the Record (14 Pp.)
|Apr 3 1996||Motion filed (in non-AA proceeding)|
Motion by State Public Defender for appointment of new counsel (for appellant) based on a conflict of interest (21 Pp.)
|May 22 1996||Order filed:|
Appellant's "Objection to Representation by Current Appellate Counsel and Motion for Appointment of New Counsel Based on a Conflict of Interest," filed 4-3-96, is denied.
|May 24 1996||Received letter from:|
State P.D., dated 5-23-96, Inquiring About the Status of motion filed 4-3-96.
|May 12 1998||Record on appeal filed|
C-10 (702 Pp.) and R-39 (4,531 Pp.)
|May 12 1998||Appellant's opening brief letter sent, due:|
|Jun 15 1998||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to file AOB
|Jun 16 1998||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 8-21-98 To file AOB
|Aug 13 1998||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Aob.
|Aug 14 1998||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 10-20-98 To file Aob.
|Oct 20 1998||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to file AOB
|Oct 26 1998||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 12-21-98 To file AOB
|Dec 15 1998||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Aob.
|Dec 17 1998||Filed:|
Suppl Decl of John Fresquez in support of request for Eot.
|Dec 23 1998||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 2-19-99 To file AOB
|Feb 9 1999||Motion to augment AA record filed|
Appellant's request for augmentation of the record.
|Feb 11 1999||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Aob.
|Feb 23 1999||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 4-20-99 To file AOB
|Feb 24 1999||Filed:|
Resp's Objection to request for Augmentation.
|Feb 24 1999||Filed:|
Applt's response to Objection to request for Augmentation of Record.
|Mar 18 1999||Filed:|
Declaration of Trial Counsel, Kirk Mc Allister, Re: Juror Questionnaires.
|Apr 13 1999||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Aob.
|Apr 26 1999||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 5-20-99 To file AOB
|May 19 1999||Application for Extension of Time filed|
By Applt to file AOB
|May 26 1999||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 7-19-99 To file AOB no further Extemsions of time Are Contemplated
|Jun 16 1999||Record augmentation granted|
Appellant's motion to augment the record is granted. The record is augmented to include the copies of juror questionnaires included in Appendix "C" of appellant's request for augmentation. Respondent's motion to redact the record is denied.
|Jul 13 1999||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Aob.
|Jul 21 1999||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 8-18-99 To file AOB no further Extensions of time will be Granted.
|Aug 2 1999||Appellant's opening brief filed|
|Sep 1 1999||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Resp's brief.
|Sep 8 1999||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 11/1/99 To file Resp's brief.
|Oct 28 1999||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Resp's brief.
|Nov 2 1999||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 12/31/99 To file Resp's brief.
|Dec 27 1999||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Resp's brief.
|Dec 30 1999||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 2/29/2000 To file Resp's brief.
|Feb 25 2000||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Resp's brief.
|Mar 2 2000||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 5/1/2000 To file Resp's brief.
|Apr 26 2000||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Resp's brief.
|May 2 2000||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 6/30/2000 To file Resp's brief.
|Jun 26 2000||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file Resp's brief.
|Jul 3 2000||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 7/31/2000 to file resp's brief.
|Jul 21 2000||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file resp's brief (seventh request).
|Aug 1 2000||Extension of Time application Granted|
to 8-30-2000 to file resp's brief.
|Aug 24 2000||Respondent's brief filed|
|Sep 6 2000||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file reply brief. (1st request)
|Sep 8 2000||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 11/13/2000 to file reply brief.
|Nov 7 2000||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file reply brief. (2nd request)
|Nov 15 2000||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 1/12/2001 to file reply brief.
|Jan 8 2001||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file reply brief. (3rd request)
|Jan 18 2001||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 3/5/2001 to file reply brief.
|Feb 14 2001||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
|Feb 22 2001||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
(from Jay Coangelo, State P.D.)
|Feb 26 2001||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file reply brief. (4th request)
|Mar 9 2001||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 5/4/2001 to file Reply Brief.
|Mar 16 2001||Order filed:|
To amend order of 3/9/2001- order shows extension to 5/4/2000, correct date is 5/4/2001.
|Apr 23 2001||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
|Apr 30 2001||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file reply brief. (5th request)
|May 4 2001||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 6/4/2001 to file reply brief.
|May 30 2001||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file reply brief. (6th request)
|Jun 19 2001||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 8/3/2001 to file reply brief. No further extensions of time are contemplated.
|Jun 22 2001||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
|Jul 31 2001||Application for Extension of Time filed|
To file reply biref. (7th request)
|Aug 13 2001||Filed:|
Applt.'s supplemental request for extension of time to file reply brief.
|Aug 27 2001||Extension of Time application Granted|
To 10/2/2001 to file reply brief. No further extensions of time will be granted.
|Oct 2 2001||Application to file over-length brief filed|
(210 pp. reply brief submitted under separate cover)
|Oct 10 2001||Filed:|
Applt.'s application to file brief in excess of page limit is granted.
|Oct 10 2001||Appellant's Reply Brief filed. (210 pp.)|
|Oct 22 2001||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
|Nov 16 2001||Motion filed|
for resetting of presumptive timeliness. **** FILING STRICKEN PURSUANT TO COURT'S ORDER OF 12-24-2001. ****
|Dec 19 2001||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
|Dec 24 2001||Order filed|
The 11-16-2001, filing of the defendant's "Motion for Resetting of Presumptive Timeliness" is hereby stricken as irregular. A petition for writ of habeas corpus is not subject to a due date under the Supreme Court Policies Regarding Cases Arising From Judgments of Death, and therefore does not require any extension of time for filing.
|Feb 19 2002||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
from State P.D.
|Apr 19 2002||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
|May 31 2002||Related habeas corpus petition filed (concurrent)|
|Jun 3 2002||Filed letter from:|
Applt., dated 6/3/2002, re withdrawl of conflict argument from the appeal.
|Jun 17 2002||Counsel's status report received (confidential)|
|Jun 18 2002||Filed:|
Notification of service of applt. w/letter to Frederick Olrich, filed in this court on June 3.
|Nov 7 2002||Exhibits lodged|
People's exhibits 46, 47 & 48; Defendant's I & UUU received from Stanislaus County Superior Court.
|Dec 19 2002||Oral argument letter sent|
advising counsel case could be scheduled for oral argument as early as March 2003 calendar. Any request for additional time to argue, notification of requirement for two counsel, or advisement of "focus issues" due no later than 10 days after the case has been set for oral argument.
|Jan 13 2003||Filed letter from:|
Respondent, dated 1/10/2003, requesting oral argument be scheduled for the April calendar.
|Jan 16 2003||Letter sent to:|
respondent advising that the court has considered letter of 1-10-2003, requesting that oral argument not be scheduled for March calendar, but is not inclined to postpone argument. Counsel should anticipate that the case is likely to be placed on the March oral argument calendar.
|Jan 27 2003||Filed letter from:|
Respondent, dated 1/23/2003, re focus issues for oral argument.
|Feb 3 2003||Case ordered on calendar|
3-12-03, 1:30pm, S.F.
|Feb 13 2003||Filed letter from:|
Appellant, dated 2/11/2003, re focus issues for oral argument.
|Feb 27 2003||Exhibits lodged|
|Mar 10 2003||Request for judicial notice granted|
Appellant's motion to take judicial notice of minute order dated 1/4/1990, of Stanislaus County Superior Court, case number 246029, appeaing in appendix B of the appellant's opening brief is granted. Appellant's motion to take judicial notice of documents from Stanislaus County case number 149126, appearing in appendix A of the appellant's opening brief is denied.
|Mar 12 2003||Cause argued and submitted|
|Jun 2 2003||Opinion filed: Judgment reversed|
We vacate the special circumstance found true as to count II (conspiracy to commit murder) as well as the sentence of life without possibility of parole imposed for the conspiracy conviction. The judgment is reversed. Majority Opinion by Kennard, J., ----- Joined by George, CJ., Werdegar, Chin, Brown and Moreno, JJ. Concurring Opinion by Baxter, J.
|Jun 16 2003||Request for modification of opinion filed|
by the State Public Defender.
|Jun 19 2003||Time extended to consider modification or rehearing|
The finality of the opinion in the above-entitled matter is hereby extended to and including 8-1-2003.
|Jul 15 2003||Related habeas corpus petition filed (post-judgment)|
|Jul 18 2003||Time extended to consider modification or rehearing|
The finality of the opinion in the above-entitled matter is hereby further extended to and including 8-29-2003.
|Aug 13 2003||Opinion modified - no change in judgment|
|Sep 2 2003||Remittitur issued (AA)|
|Sep 8 2003||Received:|
Acknowledgment of receipt of remittitur.
|Sep 22 2003||Exhibit(s) returned|
to Stanislaus Co. Superior Court.
|Sep 25 2003||Received:|
Acknowledgment of receipt of exhibits.
|Oct 16 2003||Order filed (150 day statement)|
|Mar 7 2006||Related habeas corpus petition filed (post-judgment)|
|Aug 2 1999||Appellant's opening brief filed|
|Aug 24 2000||Respondent's brief filed|
|Oct 10 2001||Appellant's Reply Brief filed. (210 pp.)|