Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Page 1


C.A.: Fear of ‘Immediate’ Threat by Man in Texas Was Reasonable


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


This district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that it was reasonable for a Houston woman who fled from her husband to California with their children to fear that her husband would follow through on threats to kill her, even though he was still in Texas and had no income.

Div. Five held that sufficient evidence supported Ronald Lee Smith’s conviction for making criminal threats against his wife given his long and escalating history of violence, and because he had traveled to California and assaulted his wife there during her prior attempt to flee.

According to the court’s opinion, Smith, an unemployed drug-user, abused his wife—identified as “S.J.”—every day for 19 years while they lived in Houston with their three boys, except on the few days when he was unable to do so because he was incarcerated.

There was testimony Smith abused S.J. verbally, administered beatings which were severe and became worse over time, kicked her, pulled her hair and urinated on her.

History of Abuse

The testimony further indicated that Smith beat S.J. while she was eight months pregnant, resulting in the child’s death; kicked her in the head less than a month after she had brain surgery due to repeated blunt force trauma; repeatedly put a gun in her mouth and threatened to kill her; had sex with her when their children were present; told the children he would cut her legs off with a machete; and tortured their dog and threw their cat out the window while driving on the freeway.

On one occasion, Smith allegedly assaulted S.J. within an hour of his release from incarceration, and the violence escalated to the point that S.J. testified that she knew, “if I ever went back, I would probably never be sitting here today.”

S.J. decided to put an end to the abuse and to move away with the help of an adult son living in California, but when she attempted to flee, Smith decided to travel with her and assaulted her upon arriving at the son’s home.

When S.J. attempted to flee a second time, she brought the children with her to California and obtained a restraining order.

Voice Messages

However, she testified, Smith told her she “wasn’t going to take his kids from him like that,” and that he would “kill her.” She said Smith also threatened to kill her adult son and left threatening” voice messages on the son’s cell phone, and said that when she came back to Texas she “was going to go through hell…if she survived, if he didn’t kill her.”

Believing Smith had nothing left to lose and that he would come to California and hurt her, S.J. contacted police and Smith was charged with corporal injury to a cohabitant under Penal Code Sec. 273.5(a) and criminal threats under Sec. 422.

Smith was convicted and sentenced to four years and eight months in jail by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Lippitt, but he argued on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to support the criminal threats conviction.

Statutory Requirement

Sec. 422 requires a showing that a threat “on its face and under the circumstances in which it [was] made, [was] so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat, and thereby cause[d] that person reasonably to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety or for his or her immediate family’s safety.”

Smith argued the showing could not be met because he was three states away from S.J. without a job or income when he allegedly made the threats, but Presiding Justice Paul Turner disagreed, concluding there was substantial evidence that the immediacy requirement was met.

He explained:

“A trier of fact could intelligently conclude: it was reasonable for S.J. to fear defendant would follow through on the threats he made from Texas; this conclusion is based on the totality of the circumstances including the long and escalating history of defendant’s violence; and S.J.’s fear made sense because of defendant’s prior trip to California.”

Turner further noted that the trial court could also consider the fact that S.J. had left Smith and taken their children with her.

Justices Orville A. Armstrong and Justice Richard M. Mosk joined Turner in his opinion.

The case is People v. Smith, B214460.


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