Monday, January 10, 2011
Court of Appeal Upholds Murder Conviction in Traffic Death
Felony-Murder Rule Applied Where Stolen Appliance Fell From Defendant’s Pickup, Causing Fatality
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A defendant who burglarized a home under construction and stole several objects, including a stove that subsequently fell from his pickup truck, causing the death of a deputy sheriff on his way to work, was properly convicted of first degree murder, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Div. Three affirmed the conviction of Cole Allen Wilkins of Long Beach under the felony-murder rule. The panel also rejected the argument that his 25-year-to-life sentence violated the constitutional bans on cruel and/or unusual punishment, noting that he had carefully planned the burglary and had a lengthy record of violent and serious crime.
Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff David Piquette was driving to work around 5 a.m. on July 7, 2006 on the 91 Freeway from his Corona home when he came upon a scene where several drivers had hit a stove. He swerved to avoid a collision, but hit a truck carrying cement and was crushed to death.
The driver of the truck, “a big truck, tractor with two trailers,” testified that he was carrying a full load at a speed of 55 miles per hour, lost control of the vehicle after hitting a vehicle that he never saw, and was injured in the ensuing collision.
A paramedic testified that Piquette’s county-issued Crown Victoria was trapped between the two trailers. An accident reconstruction testified that both Piquette and the truck driver reacted normally under the circumstances and that Piquette was likely driving under 30 miles per hour.
The investigation leading to Wilkins’ arrest for the deputy’s murder came after he allegedly told a friend about the incident. The friend, whose garage was being used by Wilkins to store various appliances, notified the California Highway Patrol.
The CHP subsequently determined that the items, as well as the stove, had been stolen from a house under construction in Menifee, Riverside County, and that the theft occurred not long before the deputy was killed. A check of Wilkins’ cell phone records revealed he was in the Menifee area when those items were delivered about 10 days before they were stolen, and again around the time the crime occurred.
Police and prosecutors concluded that Wilkins, who was planning to oversee construction of a house in Palm Springs as part of a business arrangement with an ex-girlfriend, burglarized the Menifee house, and loaded the stolen items into his pickup truck. In his haste to flee the scene, however, he failed to close the tailgate or secure the load, causing the stove to tumble out onto the freeway, the prosecution argued.
Wilkins admitted to being the driver of the pickup, but testified that did not commit the burglary. He said he purchased the items from a friend named “Rick” for $1,500.
The defendant, who admitted two prior convictions for selling stolen property, said he suspected the goods Rick was selling might be stolen, but “needed the stuff for the house.”
He also acknowledged that there were tie-downs in the truck, but said the boxes of the items he bought were on top of them before he realized they might be needed. He said that given the weight of the items and lack of traffic at that early hour, he did not believe there was any danger of items falling off the truck.
Wilkins admitted that he did not stop his vehicle until a motorist who was driving behind him when the stove fell off flashed his lights and honked his horn. He also acknowledged that he gave the man a phony name and two false telephone numbers and did not produce a driver’s license or registration for the truck, and that he lied to CHP investigators
He lied, he said, because he was uninsured and his driver’s license was suspended.
Jurors found him guilty of first degree murder, and Orange Superior Court Judge Richard F. Toohey sentenced him to 25 years to life, plus a one-year enhancement. In doing so, he described the defendant’s criminal record as “chilling” and said he was “an extremely dangerous individual.”
Justice Eileen Moore, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the felony-murder rule was correctly applied.
The justice concluded there was sufficient evidence for jurors to conclude Wilkins committed the burglary.
Not only were jurors entitled to infer guilt from his possession of the stolen property shortly after the burglary occurred, Moore said, the inference was corroborated by the cell phone records; his ex-girlfriend’s testimony that he called around the time of the burglary to say he had “some really big things for the kitchen;” his failure to secure the load—inferring he was in a hurry—; the lack of plates on the truck, suggesting he was trying to conceal identification; and his testimony that he needed the items.
Moore went on to say that the homicide and the burglary were part of one continuous transaction for felony-murder purposes.
The acts that ultimately led to Piquette’s death, including the failure to secure the load, all occurred at the burglary scene, the justice said. The evidence, she explained, was sufficient to convince a jury that the defendant had not reached a place of safety prior to the homicidal event.
“The homicide occurred while defendant was in immediate flight from the burglary to the location where he would unload the loot,” the jurist said. “....Here, the act that caused the homicide — the failure to tie down the load of stolen loot — occurred at the scene of the burglary, not 60 miles later when part of the unsecured load fell off the back of defendant’s truck as he drove to where he could unload and hide the loot.”
Moore also rejected the defendant’s claim that his sentence was cruel and/or unusual in light of his lack of murderous intent.
The justice distinguished n re Lynch (1972) 8 Cal.3d 410 and People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal.3d 441.
In Lynch, the court held that a statute prescribing a life sentence for second-offense indecent exposure was unconstitutional on its face. In Dillon, the justices overturned the life sentence imposed on a 17-year-old convicted under the felony-murder rule, finding the statutory sentence cruel or unusual as applied to a defendant that young, who had no prior criminal record and shot a man he thought was about to shoot him.
In this case, Moore said, the defendant was an adult who caused the death of another person, and was neither young nor criminally unsophisticated.
Wilkins was 30 at the time of the crime and had been committing crimes or serving time almost continuously since age 11, she noted, beginning with the stabbing of a girl who had teased him. His subsequent crimes included robbery, burglary, assault with a firearm, rape, drunk driving, possession of stolen property, and failure to register as a sex offender.
Among those was an attack on his mother—whom he struck and tried to choke—when he was a teenager, and an incident in which he burglarized a woman’s residence, raped her in her bathtub, brutalized her so badly she needed 100 stitches and plastic surgery, and then returned and raped her again after she thought he had gone, Moore noted.
The case is People v. Wilkins, G040716.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company