Thursday, February 16, 2017
Court of Appeal Holds a Life Sentence for Voluntary Manslaughter Unconstitutional
Panel, in ‘Rare Case,’ Says Sentence for Woman Who Shot Man After He Beat Her Father Was Cruel and Unusual
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal has overturned a 27-year-to-life sentence for voluntary manslaughter, saying it violates the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Stuart Pollak, writing for Div. Three, said the conviction of Deyanira Cuiriz was “the rare case in which there is merit to defendant’s constitutional challenge to the sentence imposed.”
Curiz, of Richmond, was found guilty by a jury of attempted voluntary manslaughter, mayhem and shooting at an occupied vehicle. Jurors rejected an attempted murder charge.
Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Trevor White found that the crime involved significant mitigating circumstances, including that it was committed under duress. But he said he had no choice but to impose a 25-year-to-life enhancement, on top of the low-end two-year term for mayhem, under the 1996 “10-20-Life” law, because the crime was committed with a gun and resulted in great bodily injury.
Pollak noted that Cuiriz’s sentence was longer than the base term for first-degree murder, child rape, and other serious crimes, and said her guilt was “at the bottom end of the spectrum” for violent crimes. He also noted that no other state appears to impose a similar penalty for a similar crime.
The justice cited evidence that the victim and a friend of his had provoked the attack, the shooting was unplanned, and that Cuiriz had no prior criminal record. He said an appropriate sentence was the 12-year term that White said he would have imposed if not constrained by the statute.
Witnesses said Cuiriz and her family were celebrating her 19th birthday in August 2012 when two men drove up to her home and confronted her father. There was conflicting testimony as to what brought the confrontation about.
Curiz told police she saw her father on the ground with his face bleeding and, when she tried to intervene, the two men pushed her away.
She said they told her they were gang members and threatened to return. She obtained a gun, apparently from her boyfriend, and fired a shot into their truck, hitting Oscar Barcenas in the spine. The bullet paralyzed him from the neck down.
Pollak said the case was similar to two well-known cases in which similarly long sentences had been found unconstitutional, People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal.3d 441 and In re Lynch (1972) 8 Cal.3d 410.
The Dillon court overturned the life sentence imposed on a 17-year-old who had no prior criminal record and shot a man he thought was about to shoot him. In Lynch, the court held that a statute prescribing a life sentence for second-offense indecent exposure was unconstitutional on its face.
While Cuiriz “must be punished” for having “over-reacted to the situation,” Pollak said, the lengthy sentence mandated by the statute “is far longer than necessary” in the particular case, and fails to take into consideration the defendant’s character and law-abiding nature. He also cited the legislative history of the statute, which says its intent was to protect the public from those “misusing guns to terrorize, injure and kill their victims.”
While agreeing with the defense regarding the length of the sentence, Pollak said the conviction was valid. He rejected the argument that recorded statements Cuiriz made to detectives at the police station the morning after her arrest should have been suppressed.
Cuiriz told the investigators she was “mad” at what the two men did to her father, that Barcenas “was like threatening me” and that “my anger got to me,” so she “just shot him.”
Doing so, she said, “was easily self defense.”
Pollak said Cuiriz knowingly and voluntarily waived her right not to incriminate herself, rejecting the defense argument that her age, lack of understanding of the criminal justice system, emotional upset, and possible lack of sleep, as well as hunger and thirst, made the statements involuntary.
The justice said Cuiriz was an educated, employed adult who exhibited an understanding of her surroundings and a willingness to talk to police after being advised of her rights. The appellate panel, he said, had viewed the videotape of her statements and reached the same conclusion as the trial judge as to admissibility.
The case is People v. Cuiriz, 17 S.O.S. 764.
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