Wednesday, March 4, 2020
Court of Appeal:
Irion Says Killing Was ‘Horrific’ but Reversal Is Required Based on Testimony That Victim Had Told of Domestic Violence on Part of Defendant Including Aborted Act of Setting Her on Fire
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Div. One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday reversed a first-degree murder conviction because the judge admitted testimony from witnesses who related the victim’s accounts to them of instances of violence on the part of the defendant, including an aborted attempt to kill her.
The justices held that Evidence Code §1390, which creates an exception to the hearsay rule, does not apply. That section provides, in part:
“Evidence of a statement is not made inadmissible by the hearsay rule if the statement is offered against a party that has engaged, or aided and abetted, in the wrongdoing that was intended to, and did, procure the unavailability of the declarant as a witness.”
The appeals court considered the applicability of §1390 in tandem with the “forfeiture by wrongdoing doctrine” under which the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation of witnesses is deemed lost where the defendant intentionally causes a witness to be absent from trial.
Riverside Superior Court Judge Charles J. Koosed admitted testimony as to statements that the victim, identified only as “Charlene,” had made to the witnesses concerning acts of domestic violence toward her by her cohabitant, Rene Quintanilla Jr., who fatally shot her in their bedroom on June 5, 2016.
In particular, the victim’s aunt and sister both testified that Charlene told them that Quintanilla had tied her to a chair, affixed duct tape to her mouth, placed a bag over her head, doused her with gasoline, and lit his cigarette lighter, to be saved by Quintanilla’s stepfather who interceded just as she was about to be set on fire. Also, Chalene’s aunt and mother recounted the victim’s recitation of Quintanilla strangling her with a belt, causing her to black out.
Announcing the reversal, Justice Joan K. Irion said that “although this case involves a horrific and tragic killing,” the conviction cannot stand because §1390 was inapplicable. There was insufficient evidence that the killing was for the purpose of precluding Charlene from testifying as to the acts of abuse, she explained, adding that without that evidence of violent acts, a jury might not have found the homicide to have been murder in the first degree.
First District Opinion
“Sparse case law exists applying the requirements of Evidence Code section 1390 or the analogous constitutional doctrine of forfeiture by wrongdoing doctrine in the context of domestic violence cases,” Irion said, noting the only such case is People v. Kerley, decided by the First District in 2018.
Differentiating that case, Irion wrote:
“[I]n Kerley the application of Evidence Code section 1390 turned on two crucial facts that are not present in this case: (1) there was a pending domestic violence case against the defendant with an upcoming court date; and (2) the defendant had threatened to kill his girlfriend if she called the police. Here, in contrast, there was no pending proceeding against Quintanilla in which Charlene might be a witness, no indication that Charlene planned to go to the authorities to initiate any such proceeding, and no evidence that Quintanilla had ever threatened to kill Charlene if she reported him to authorities.”
Opinion by Scalia
The jurist also pointed to the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Giles v. California in which it was held that the forfeiture by wrongdoing doctrine cannot be applied “without a showing that the defendant intended to prevent a witness from testifying.” Irion quoted Justice Antonin Scalia (now deceased) as saying:
“Acts of domestic violence often are intended to dissuade a victim from resorting to outside help, and include conduct designed to prevent testimony to police officers or cooperation in criminal prosecutions. Where such an abusive relationship culminates in murder, the evidence may support a finding that the crime expressed the intent to isolate the victim and to stop her from reporting abuse to the authorities or cooperating with a criminal prosecution—rendering her prior statements admissible under the forfeiture doctrine. Earlier abuse, or threats of abuse, intended to dissuade the victim from resorting to outside help would be highly relevant to this inquiry, as would evidence of ongoing criminal proceedings at which the victim would have been expected to testify.”
Irion said that decision does not justify the admission of statements in Quintanilla’s case, setting forth:
“Here, although the evidence shows that Quintanilla sought to isolate Charlene, control her, and create fear in her, there is no specific evidence of abuse or threats of abuse ‘intended to dissuade the victim from resorting to outside help’ or ‘evidence of ongoing criminal proceedings at which the victim would have been expected to testify.’…All that we are left with is evidence that is unquestionably present in many domestic violence cases, namely that Charlene and Quintanilla’s relationship was violent and included elements of control, isolation and fear. That evidence, without more, is insufficient to satisfy the intent requirement of Evidence Code section 1390.”
Without the evidence in question, she said, “it is reasonably probable that the jury would not have convicted Quintanilla of first degree murder,” adding:
“The evidence makes clear that Quintanilla had a long history of engaging in violent and reprehensible conduct toward Charlene that culminated in a brutal and tragic killing. However, even a defendant charged with a horrific crime like Quintanilla’s has the right to a fair trial where the rules of evidence are properly applied. Because we conclude it is reasonably probable that Quintanilla would have obtained a more favorable result at trial on the issue of premeditation and deliberation had the trial court excluded Charlene’s out-of-court statements from evidence, we reverse the judgment and remand this action for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.”
The case is People v. Quintanilla, 2020 S.O.S. 945.
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