Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, January 29, 2015


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C.A. Rejects ‘Mistake’ Defense in Axe Killing of Suspected Burglar




A Sacramento-area man convicted of using an axe to kill a man he mistakenly believed had broken into his house was not entitled to sua sponte jury instructions on mistake of fact or justifiable homicide, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

Steven Zinda is serving 16 years to life in prison for the second degree murder of David Valdez, which occurred in March 2011. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Marjorie Koller called the killing “brutal” and “savage,” according to news accounts of the sentencing.

According to evidence presented at trial, Zinda came home in the early morning and found his home ransacked. Believing that Valdez was one of the burglars, he grabbed an axe, chased the 20-year-old down a street for about a quarter-mile into a field, and killed him. Valdez was actually waiting on the street for a ride after driving his car into a ditch on his way home from a house party in the area.

Justifiable Killing

 Defense attorneys did not dispute that version of events, but argued that Zinda was guilty of no crime greater than voluntary manslaughter. On appeal, they argued that Koller should have instructed the jury that the killing was justifiable if Zinda killed by necessity while attempting to make a citizen’s arrest, or if Zinda was acting on a reasonable, but mistaken, belief that Valdez was one of the burglars.

Justice Andrea Hoch explained:

“The justifiable homicide instruction was not supported by substantial evidence because there was no evidence defendant was attempting to arrest Valdez for burglary.  Such a theory was also inconsistent with defendant’s theory of the case, i.e., while defendant killed Valdez unlawfully, the crime was not murder but voluntary manslaughter.  The mistake of fact instruction also lacks evidentiary support because defendant’s erroneous belief Valdez was involved in the burglary does not make killing him with multiple axe blows an innocent act.  Nor is mistake of fact a true affirmative defense implicating the trial court’s sua sponte instructional duties.”

In concluding that Zinda was not trying to make an arrest, Hoch cited his statements to police that he went after Valdez because “just the way he looked to me, dude, he . . . wasn’t a good person,” and “these people are the type of people that are gonna threaten my life, dude.” 

The justice wrote:

“There was no attempted arrest; only a completed murder.”

Jurist’s Explanation

In addition, the jurist explained, even if Zinda intended to make an arrest, he lacked probable cause to do so. Neither the fact that Valdez was standing in the street outside Zinda’s home, nor the fact that he ran away “at the sight of an angry defendant approaching with an axe in the middle of the night,” provided probable cause for an arrest or justification for a killing, Hoch said.

In an unpublished portion of the opinion, Hoch said the trial judge was correct in rejecting the defense’s request for a heat-of-passion voluntary manslaughter instruction reading “[t]he average person need not have been provoked to kill, just to act rashly and without deliberation.”   

Zinda, she concluded, wasn’t entitled to voluntary manslaughter instructions at all, although the trial judge gave the standard instruction CALCRIM No. 570, defining the circumstances in which a killing “because of a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion” would constitute manslaughter rather than murder.

For a killing in the heat of passion to be manslaughter under California law, Hoch explained, the defendant must have been provoked by conduct in which the victim actually engaged, or in which the defendant reasonably believed he engaged. Because Valdez didn’t burglarize Zinda’s house, and because Zinda’s belief that he did wasn’t reasonable, the defense wasn’t entitled to any instruction on the subject, let alone the pinpoint instruction it asked for, the justice reasoned.

The case is People v. Zinda, 15 S.O.S. 526.


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