Monday, June 19, 2006
Court Upholds Life Sentence in Los Angeles Murder-Robbery Case
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has confirmed a Los Angeles man’s murder convictions, rejecting his claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.
Div. Five ruled Thursday that Neri Munoz, who was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, failed to show that exclusion of allegedly prejudicial testimony would have spared him from conviction.
A jury found Munoz guilty of robbing and murdering Manuel Rivas, who managed the street-level pawn shop below the South Vermont Avenue apartment complex where Munoz lived. On Jan. 12, 2002, Munoz drove up to Rivas as he was standing outside the pawn shop, grabbed the briefcase Rivas was holding, and shot him, eyewitnesses testified.
Munoz argued on appeal that ineffective assistance by his trial attorney and various evidentiary errors committed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ruffo Espinoza Jr. mandated the reversal of his conviction.
Mark Shapiro, appointed by the court to represent Munoz on appeal, argued that trial counsel should have objected to the testimony of fellow tenant Erika Garcia, who said Munoz told her he “wanted to have a lot of money” so he could go to El Salvador. Munoz maintained this out-of-court statement was inadmissible as evidence to show his motive for killing Rivas.
But Court of Appeal Justice Richard M. Mosk, in an unpublished opinion, concluded that the defendant would have been convicted regardless of any objection to Garcia’s testimony.
“The prosecution did not rely on defendant’s stated need for money as the only evidence of motive,” Mosk said, so the statement was not prejudicial.
“Other evidence of motive for robbery and murder included defendant’s admission that he was willing to steal money, his belief that Rivas carried a bag containing money and jewelry, defendant’s animosity toward Rivas, and defendant’s stated intention to ‘get’ Rivas or to ‘take him down.’”
Even if the statement had been excluded, Mosk said, failure to object would have been harmless error, since the two eyewitnesses still would have identified Munoz as the killer.
The justice further concluded that Espinoza did not commit prejudicial error by admitting statements Garcia made in an audiotaped interview with a detective, as well as that detective’s hearsay testimony about those statements. Her allegations that Munoz told her he disliked Rivas and intended to “take him down” were properly offered as a prior consistent statements to rebut challenges to Garcia’s veracity at the trial and preliminary hearing, Mosk said.
Moreover, the justice wrote, Espinoza did not err in admitting Garcia’s testimony that Munoz told her he had attempted to rob a man at the end of 2001.
“In both cases, defendant chose victims that he believed possessed money or other valuables, and defendant had one or more accomplices. The offenses were relatively close in time, occurring within two months of each other. These similarities were sufficient to support an inference that defendant had the motive and intent to rob the victims in both instance,” the justice explained.
He concluded that Munoz was not denied due process and a fair trial.
The justice agreed with Munoz, however, that Espinoza erroneously imposed a $10,000 parole revocation fine under Penal Code Sec. 1202.45. Such fine is applicable to a convicted criminal only when his sentence includes a period of parole, and Munoz’s sentence excludes the possibility of parole, Mosk explained.
The case is People v. Munoz, B184114.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company