Thursday, October 27, 2016
C.A. Says Expert Testimony on Homelessness Should Have Been Allowed at Murder Trial
Panel Says Ex-Judge’s Views on Heightened Fear Would Have Assisted Jury in Assessing Self-Defense Claim
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Sonoma Superior Court judge abused his discretion by excluding expert testimony about the behavioral impact of homelessness, offered by a homeless defendant’s lawyers to explain his claim of self-defense, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Two granted a new trial to Vladimir Sotelo-Urena, who admitted stabbing another homeless man, Nicholas Bloom, to death. Jurors rejected defense arguments that Sotelo-Urena acted in either complete self-defense or imperfect self-defense, and found him guilty of first degree murder.
The victim and the defendant both spent their nights in downtown Santa Rosa, and Sotelo-Urena—who did not testify at trial—told police that Bloom approached him and became angry when the defendant told him he did not have a cigarette to give him, seemingly wishing to start a fight. He also told the officers that he had been stabbed a few weeks earlier, and that he was “pretty sure” Bloom was one of the attackers.
He also said that, although he had poor eyesight, he thought he saw “something thin” with a “liner line” to it, in Bloom’s hand.
Prosecutors suggested that robbery and/or revenge for the prior stabbing motivated the stabbing of Bloom. A passerby testified that he found defendant sitting on the steps of a library a few feet from where Bloom lay bleeding, and that he saw a wallet and four crumpled $20 bill next to the body, with another crumpled bill nearby.
Sotelo-Urena’s first comments to police, according to testimony, were “I got them before they got me,” and, in response to the question whether he was okay, “No, he was trying to kill me.”
The defense offered the testimony of retired San Diego Superior Court Judge Robert C. Coates as an expert on the relationship between homelessness and substance abuse, and on how the experience of homelessness affects such persons’ sense of being victimized by violence, and how a homeless person might react to a threat such as that allegedly posed by Bloom.
Coates’s civic activities in San Diego have included chairing the Homeless Women’s Task Force. According to his page on his law firm’s website, the former jurist “helps the task force coordinate coalition efforts of groups including Catholic charities, the San Diego Housing Commission, and the San Diego Police Department.”
The defense cited studies showing that the homeless are far more likely to become victims of violence than those who are housed, including studies conducted in San Diego and in Sonoma County. Coates, it was proffered, would testify that the homeless accurately perceive themselves as being highly susceptible to violence and are thus unusually sensitive to perceived threats.
Sonoma Superior Court Judge Rene A. Chouteau excluded the testimony, concluding it was irrelevant to self-defense, and that homelessness was a “common experience with the jurors and not subject to expert testimony.”
Jurors found the defendant guilty, and Chouteau sentenced him to 26 years to life in prison.
Justice James Richman, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the exclusion of Coates’s testimony was a prejudicial abuse of discretion.
Because the jury was required to examine the defendant’s need to use lethal force from his perspective, the justice explained, the testimony would have been relevant. He wrote:
“Judge Coates was prepared to testify that individuals who are chronically homeless, like de defendant, are subjected to a high rate of violence by both housed and unhoused individuals, and that the experience of living for years on the streets instills a perpetual fear of violence that would have affected defendant’s belief in the need to defend himself with lethal force,” Richman wrote. “The relevance of this testimony to defendant’s actual perception of the situation is evident: it would have helped the jury understand the situation from defendant’s perspective, that is, from the perspective of a chronically homeless man who had recently been violently assaulted and was aggressively approached by someone he believed to be the assailant. It would have explained his heightened sensitivity to aggression and why he was inclined to react more acutely to the perceived threat. “
The testimony, he went on to say, was also relevant to the reasonableness of the defendant’s belief that he needed to use lethal force to defend himself, and to the defendant’s credibility, since it could have “provided a context within which the jury could assess defendant’s claim that he felt threatened by Bloom’s aggressive and belligerent demeanor.”
Richman also rejected the trial judge’s conclusion that expert testimony would not have helped the jury understand matters beyond their common experience.
The case is People v. Sotelo-Urena, 16 S.O.S. 5296.
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