Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, April 24, 2014


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C.A. Upholds Murder Conviction, With Slap at U.S. Court


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday affirmed, for the second time, a second-degree murder conviction arising out of a 2000 knife attack in Carpinteria.

In the process, Div. Six took a rare swipe at a federal judge and magistrate, saying the 2007 order requiring a second trial was an unnecessary and demeaning attack on the justices’ integrity, and an end run around the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s restrictions on federal courts’ review of state convictions.

Benjamin Prock was charged with first degree murder after stabbing Eduardo Vasquez outside a convenience store late at night.

Witnesses said an argument ensued after Prock bumped Vasquez and a friend while walking between Vasquez’s car and a concrete post guarding the pump island where Vasquez had parked to get gas. After an exchange of profanities, Prock threatened to kill the two men and said he’d be back.

He subsequently returned, stabbed Vasquez, and left in a car driven by someone else. Vasquez subsequently died from the wound, the knife having penetrated six inches into his chest.

Prock testified that he bumped the two men by accident, that Vasquez and his friends started swearing, and that he returned with the knife from his kitchen because he was upset and “wanted . . . to tell them, show them pretty much that I wasn’t scared of them, that I wasn’t a coward.”  He had no intention of actually using the knife, he said, but stabbed Vasquez after the victim “came at me really fast.”

He denied that he threatened, after the initial confrontation, to return with a gun and a knife, as claimed by prosecutors.

The jury at his first trial acquitted him of first degree murder, but found him guilty of second degree murder. Div. Six affirmed in an unpublished 2005 opinion, and the state Supreme Court denied review, but U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson of the Central District of California granted Prock’s habeas corpus petition.

Anderson adopted the report and recommendation of Magistrate Judge Suzanne H. Segal, who said the trial judge should not have instructed the jury that second-degree implied malice murder is a general intent crime, and that the instruction violated Prock’s constitutional rights.

The magistrate said the analysis supporting the Court of Appeal’s conclusion, that any instructional error was harmless given the evidence, was “perfunctory” and “objectively unreasonable.” The case was retired before Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa, and Prock was again convicted of second degree murder.

On the second appeal, the defense argued that the prosecutor, by arguing that the killing was premeditated, and Ochoa, by allowing him to do so, subjected Prock to double jeopardy. The premeditation argument, the defense claimed, was foreclosed by the prior acquittal of first degree murder.

No so, Justice Kenneth Yegan wrote for the Court of Appeal. Yegan also wrote the opinion rejecting Prock’s first appeal, and was joined in both instances by Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert and Justice Steven Perren.

“The not guilty verdict at appellant’s first trial shows only that the jury had a reasonable doubt as to his guilt on the degree of the murder,” Yegan explained. “It does not amount to a factual finding that appellant did not premeditate or deliberate the killing.”

Since the jury in the first trial did not necessarily decide that Prock did not plan the killing, the justice said, there was no bar to the prosecutor arguing that Prock’s actions in getting the knife from his kitchen and returning to the scene proved that the murder was willful and not committed in the heat of passion or in self-defense.

Yegan reserved harsh words for the federal court, although he did not mention the district judge or magistrate judge by name.

He cited People v. Miller (1978) 85 Cal.App.3d 194 are apt, in which the court responded to an OSC on a habeas corpus petition by saying: “We consider the order of the federal district court to be an affront to the judges of this state.”

Yegan declared:

“The present matter is worse. Here, there is a full opinion condemning the harmless error analysis as ‘perfunctory’ and ‘objectively unreasonable.’  The former statement is, at the very least, disrespectful, and raises the issue of integrity....We understand that the federal courts have the power and right to vacate state court final judgments.  Having the power and right does not make it right.”

A Court of Appeal determination that a constitutional error is harmless based on the facts of the case, Yegan wrote, “is apparently entitled to no weight in the central district.” While the federal court’s decision acknowledged “that the standard of review in a habeas case is ‘highly deferential’ and requires that a state court decision be ‘given the benefit of the doubt,’ “ Yegan wrote, the decision “does neither.”

Yegan said the “stark facts” surrounding Prock’s departure from the scene, his return with the knife, and his moving toward the victim and plunging the knife deep into him establish beyond a reasonable doubt that “the trial court’s single and erroneous use of the legal term of art, ‘general criminal intent,’ could not have adversely affected the jury’s deliberations or verdict.”

The defense claim, that the victim ran at Prock so fast as to scare him into stabbing Vasquez with a weapon he had no intention of using, “was preposterous,” Yegan wrote. “This scenario would not even work if the victim was Jesse Owens reincarnate, sprinting toward appellant with his chest jutting out, so that a stationary kitchen knife could penetrate six inches into his thoracic cavity and heart.”  

Prock, he concluded, “was fairly tried and fairly convicted; both times.”

The case is People v. Prock, 14 S.O.S. 1940.


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