Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Court Upholds Death Sentence, Rejects Claim That Judge Wrongly Deviated From Standard Competency Instruction
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A deviation between the approved language of a standard jury instruction and the version of the instruction that appears in the court reporter’s transcript is no basis for reversing a murder conviction and resulting death sentence, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 5-2 decision, the court affirmed Michael James Huggins’ conviction and sentence for the 1986 murder of Sarah Anne Lees, who was shot to death at her home in Castro Valley. Huggins admitted killing Lees but said he did so accidentally.
Huggins, an escapee from a California Youth Authority work crew at the time, said he broke into the house, thinking that—because of its isolated location—it was a weekend or summer residence and was unoccupied at the time. When Lees came in, he testified, he hid; but when he saw her carrying a shotgun, he “rushed out” and grabbed the gun from her.
Hoping to make good his escape, he said, he forced Lees into a bedroom and put the gun on a counter. When Lees ran from the bedroom, he said, he grabbed the gun from the counter and it accidentally discharged.
Following Huggins’ arrest and prior to the filing of formal charges, Huggins’ counsel questioned his competency to stand trial. A jury trial on competency was held in Alameda Superior Court, where defense and prosecution experts clashed as to whether Huggins’ lack of cooperation with his lawyers was a result of mental illness or a deliberate effort to avoid standing trial.
At the time of the competency trial, there was a standard jury instruction, CALJIC No. 4.10, which was based on Penal Code Sec. 1367 and had been revised in 1984 to read:
“Although on some subjects his mind may be deranged or unsound, a person charged with a criminal offense is deemed mentally competent to be tried for the crime charged against him:
“1.If he is capable of understanding the nature and purpose of the proceedings against him; and
“2.If he comprehends his own status and condition in reference to such proceedings; and
“3.If he is able [to assist his attorney in conducting his defense] [to conduct his own defense] in a rational manner.
“The defendant is presumed to be mentally competent and he has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he is mentally incompetent as a result of mental disorder [or developmental disability].”
The reporter’s transcript, however, indicated that in giving the instruction, the judge left out the word “and” between the numbered paragraphs. The defense argued on appeal that the jury may have thus been misled to believe that the defendant was competent if any one of the three requirements was met, whereas the correct language makes clear the defendant is deemed incompetent unless all three requirements of a competency finding are met.
The high court, while unanimously agreeing that Huggins received a fair trial in the guilt and penalty phases, split on the effect of the discrepancy between the approved language of CALJIC No. 4.10 and the text of the transcript.
Justice Carlos Moreno, writing for the majority, said the court would assume that the variance—apparently the written instructions were not made part of the record—was caused by an error on the part of the reporter. Had the judge actually varied from the standard language without declaring his intent to do so, the justice reasoned, the defense would have objected.
In any event, Moreno said, the discrepancy was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because it was “plain from the record that defendant had the ability to consult with his counsel with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and had a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin, and Carol Corrigan concurred.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar. Kennard argued that the issue should be resolved at an evidentiary hearing, based on the trial judge’s and attorneys’ recollection of what the instruction actually said.
Among the contentions rejected by the justices was a claim that Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Horner, who presided over a second trial on the issue of penalty—the jury at the original trial returned a conviction and robbery-murder finding but could not agree on whether to impose a death sentence—should have excluded testimony by sheriff’s deputies that Huggins declared himself after the first trial to have no remorse over the killing.
The defense argued that the officers provoked the comment by telling Horner that they were glad he was convicted and hoped he would be sentenced to death, and violated Horner’s rights to silence and to counsel by doing so. But Moreno explained that such provocation is not a constitutional violation unless the officers intend to elicit incriminating statements, which was not the case here.
The case is People v. Huggins, 06 S.O.S. 1798.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company