Thursday, May 14, 2015
C.A. Tosses Conviction for Killing Son-in-Law’s Grandmother
Panel Says Lack of Instruction on Aiding and Abetting Felony Murder May Have Confused Jury
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal has overturned a Bay Area woman’s conviction for the first degree murder of her son-in-law’s grandmother, stemming from a custody dispute.
Div. Two affirmed Rosa Hill’s convictions for the murder of Selma Hill and the attempted murder of Rosa Hill’s former husband Eric Hill. But it ordered a new trial on the murder charge for Rosa Hill’s mother, Mei Li.
Alameda Superior Court Judge Kenneth M. Burr should have instructed the jury that under the felony-murder rule, even if Li participated in the burglary of Selma Hill’s house, she was not guilty of aiding and abetting Hill’s murder if Hill was already dead before Li chose to assist in the killing, Justice Therese Stewart wrote for Div. Two.
Her April 16 opinion was certified yesterday for partial publication. The ruling leaves intact Li’s conviction and life sentence, with possibility of parole, on the attempted murder count.
Rosa Hill is serving 26 years to life for murder and life imprisonment with possibility of parole, plus 10 years on a gun enhancement, for attempted murder.
Selma Hill, 91, was killed in her home in the Alameda County community of Dublin in 2009. According to testimony, sheriff’s deputies came to the home and found a chaotic scene, with Eric Hill on his knees in the hallway, and Li bleeding from the head and standing near unspent bullets, a Taser, and a collapsible baton.
Rosa Hill was in a bedroom, and the couple’s 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth was in a nearby bathroom. A second Taser was found in the bedroom occupied by Rosa Hill.
An unloaded black handgun was found in Rosa Hill’s coat, and Li acknowledged that she had a stun gun in hers.
Li’s husband, Ping Li, was found in a car parked across the street. He was later sentenced to four years in prison as an accessory after the fact.
Selma Hill’s body was found in a trash can inside a storage shed. She had been tased, beaten, and strangled.
Prosecutors said that Li and her daughter plotted for months leading up to the killing to regain custody of Elizabeth, after it was awarded to Eric Hill based on evidence of his wife’s mental problems. Rosa Hill said her daughter made comments that led her to believe her estranged husband was molesting the child, a claim which Eric Hill denied.
She testified that she went to Selma Hill’s house, where Eric Hill was living at the time, to confront him about the supposed molestation. She said she told the elderly woman about the alleged molestation, that Hill replied that her grandson was the child’s father and could do what he wanted, and that Hill grabbed a weapon and swung it at her.
At that point, the younger woman said, she “became really angry” and “lost it,” tasing and shoving the nonagenarian.
She then called her mother to the house, she said, hiding the body in the interim. Eric Hill arrived after Li, she said, and charged her, grabbing her and throwing her to the floor, and threatening her with a gun before she grabbed a stun gun and used it to free herself.
Eric Hill testified that he was attacked suddenly as soon as he arrived at the house.
Stewart, in her opinion for the Court of Appeal, said that on the basis of the evidence, Burr’s instructions to the jury should have included the optional third paragraph of CALJIC No. 8.27: “[In order to be guilty of murder, as an aider and abettor to a felony murder, the accused and the killer must have been jointly engaged in the commission of the (felony) at the time the fatal [blow was struck] [wound was inflicted].]”
Absent the instruction, Stewart said, there was “no guidance to the jury on the timing of Mei’s aiding, promotion, encouragement or instigation by act or advice, of Rosa’s commission of the burglary and/or kidnapping” and a juror who believed Rosa Hill’s testimony that Selma Hill was already dead when Li arrived, and that Li had no prior role in any murder plot, might have mistakenly believed that Li could still be convicted under the felony-murder rule.
Stewart also concluded that the omission of the instruction was federal constitutional error and was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
In portions of the opinion that remain unpublished, Stewart rejected all of Rosa Hill’s arguments, including claims that her un-Mirandized post-arrest statement to police was involuntary, and thus should not have been used for impeachment, and that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct requiring reversal when he responded “Baloney” to a statement by Hill on cross-examination.
Stewart agreed that the comment was improper, but said the prosecutor’s apology and the judge’s sustaining of the defense objection was sufficient to alleviate any prejudice that might have been caused by the brief remark.
The case is People v. Hill, 15 S.O.S. 2369.
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