Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Plea Agreement Conditioned on Prior Statements’ Truth Not Coercive—C.A.
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A plea agreement condition permitting the prosecution to withdraw its offer to a co-defendant if it later learned he had lied in his last interview by police did not coerce the co-defendant to testify in a particular fashion, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Affirming Gerardo Reyes conviction for the execution-style murder of a juvenile fellow gang member who had cooperated with law enforcement, Div. Eight held that the condition, rather than being an express agreement to testify in accordance with a prior statement, was merely an undertaking as to that prior statement’s truth.
Reyes was convicted at his third trial for the murder of Randy Morales, during which Reyes’ co-defendant, George Vidales, pled guilty and testified against him. The juries in the first two trials had hung, and the first had acquitted another co-defendant.
Evidence at trial linked the murder to the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang that dominated Hispanic street gangs, and who had made known a rule that cooperation with law enforcement, when documented, was punishable by death.
The Avenues gang in Northeast Los Angeles was involved with the Mexican Mafia, and the Avenues’ membership included actual members, as well as associates and subordinate soldiers, including Reyes and Vidales.
In 1995, Los Angeles police investigating the deaths of two brothers in the Highland Park gang spoke to Morales, an Avenues member in juvenile hall, who identified Javier Marquez—a superior in the Avenues, and a Mexican Mafia associate and near-member—as the killer.
A copy of a police report in which references to Morales remained after redaction was turned over to the defense, and Morales, then age 16, was killed on the night of Oct. 5, 1996 after attending a party near a prominent Avenues location.
Vidales testified that he had been approached at the party by Reyes and Carlos Caldera, another Avenues-Mexican Mafia individual, who explained that Marquez wanted Morales killed before he could testify. Vidales said the pair asked him to help lure Morales away by promising to take Morales to pick up a handgun Vidales had borrowed from him.
Morales left in a van with Vidales, Reyes and Caldera, Vidales said, and the group was later joined by Marvin Ponce, another Avenues member, before Vidales brought the van to a stop on a secluded back street, and watched Reyes shoot Morales in the head.
After the second trial, Vidales approached the prosecution and—after conducting an interview in which he misstated or understated the truth in many respects, followed by another interview which the prosecution believed to truthful and inclusive—agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder.
The agreement provided that Vidales would testify truthfully and completely, and that after doing so, the charge would be reduced to manslaughter with a six-year sentence. However, it also provided that the deal would be off if the prosecutor learned Vidales had not been truthful in the latter interview, and that Vidales would then be bound by a 15 years to life sentence.
Vidales testified, and Reyes called several witnesses to contradict various aspects, but Vidales, on rebuttal, adhered to his account. A jury convicted Reyes of first degree murder, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry. Fidler sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
On appeal, Reyes argued that the plea agreement placed Vidales under a strong compulsion to testify in accordance with the interview in violation of the Court of Appeal’s ruling in People v. Medina (1974 41 Cal.App.3d 438—reiterated by the California Supreme Court in People v. Allen (1986) 42 Cal.3d 1222—prohibiting plea agreement conditions requiring a party to substantially conform his testimony to an earlier statement.
But Presiding Justice Candace Cooper rejected Reyes’ argument, commenting that the agreement “significantly contrasts with the type of provision found improper” in the caselaw Reyes cited.
“[W]hat the Supreme Court considers forbidden is an express agreement to testify in accordance with a prior statement or version, not simply an undertaking as to the truth of the prior statement…,” she wrote. “[A]lthough plea agreements calling for testimony naturally will exert some compulsion to testify satisfactorily, an agreement that binds the witness only to testify truthfully, and not in a prearranged fashion, cannot be deemed invalid.”
Cooper similarly rejected Reyes’ contention that a police officer’s testimony that a prosecution witness had provided information leading to the solution of five murders—including Morales’—improperly bolstered the witness’ testimony, writing that it was relevant and admissible, not as an opinion about the witness’ credibility, but as evidence of conduct supporting it.
She also opined that Reyes had been improperly denied conduct credit for his time in presentence custody because Penal Code Sec. 2933.2—prohibiting such time—did not apply to crimes committed before its June 3, 1998 effective date.
Justices Laurence D. Rubin and Madeleine Flier joined Cooper in her opinion.
The case is People v. Reyes, 08 S.O.S. 4528.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company