Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, November 20, 2013


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Court Upholds Conviction for Robbery-Murder ‘Mastermind’

Panel Says Defendant Need Not Be Present to Be Liable Under Provocative-Act Doctrine


By JUSTIN LEVINE, Staff Writer


The absent “mastermind” of an armed home-invasion robbery who sends accomplices to perform the crime can be convicted of first degree murder after one of his accomplices  provoked the robbery victim in such a way that it led him to reasonably kill one of the perpetrators in response, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.

Justice Kenneth Yegan of Div. Six Monday wrote a unanimous opinion saying that there was sufficient evidence to convict Ryan James Johnson of first degree murder under the provocative-act murder doctrine.

Ryan James Johnson was accused of masterminding a home invasion robbery of Peter Davis, an acquaintance, in order to steal cash and drugs from the residence. He sent armed accomplices to Davis’s home to perform the robbery. Johnson did not accompany them to the scene.

After the accomplices repeatedly threatened Davis with a gun and told him to walk into his back bedroom, Davis picked up his own firearm near his bed and started firing, killing one of the two robbers.

Johnson was later arrested and convicted of first degree murder for his accomplice’s death based on the provocative act murder doctrine. He was sentenced to 26 years to life.

Insufficient Evidence Argued

After sentencing, Johnson argued that there was insufficient evidence to support a first degree murder conviction, that the trial court erred in its jury instructions and that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Yegan rejected Johnson’s arguments, writing:

“In these circumstances malice is implied by law and imputed to the ‘mastermind’ despite his absence from the scene of the crime.”

“Under the provocative act [murder] doctrine,” Yegan said, “when the perpetrator of a crime maliciously commits an act that is likely to result in death, and the victim kills in reasonable response to that act, the perpetrator is guilty of murder.”

He cited Taylor v. Superior Court (1970) 3 Cal.3d 578, where the court ruled that the driver of a getaway car could be charged with first degree murder after one of the robbers he was assisting was killed by an intended victim.

 “If a getaway driver, not actually present inside the building where the robbery takes place, has provocative conduct first degree murder liability,” Yegan wrote, “surely an absent ‘mastermind’ of the robbery also has such liability.”

‘Sound Public Policy’

He also said that the use of the provocative act murder doctrine in this instance was “sound public policy,” since the surviving accomplice had also been convicted of first degree murder.

“It could also encourage a criminal planner to employ accomplices to do his bidding in his absence to shield himself from the application of the provocative act murder doctrine,” the justice said.

Yegan rejected Johnson’s argument that the trial court should have allowed a jury instruction on a lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter and that jurors should have been told that he could be convicted of murder only if he had “personally harbored malice.”

The jurist held that the jury instructions properly explained the requirement of “implied malice” in this case and that the offense of voluntary manslaughter was “without evidentiary support.”

No Abuse of Discretion

Johnson had also argued that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the jury to hear evidence of a prior home invasion robbery that Johnson participated in to obtain drugs. Yegan said that there was no abuse of discretion because evidence of the previous crime was “highly probative” since there were substantial similarities with the later robbery in terms of motive and operation.    

He said Johnson had forfeited the cruel and unusual punishment issue by failing to assert it at the trial court.

“In any event,” Yegan wrote “appellant’s sentence is not disproportionate to his crime… To say that appellant ‘could not have reasonably anticipated’ the killing is a premise which, to put it bluntly, is far-fetched. Moreover, appellant is a recidivist. He has been convicted of numerous misdemeanors and four felonies, and he has served prior prison terms.”

The case is People v. Johnson, 13 S.O.S. 5903.


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