California Supreme Court:
Harmlessness Must Be Shown Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Court Says, Reversing Affirmance of Murder Conviction
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court held yesterday that the Third District Court of Appeal too casually concluded that a trial court’s failure to instruct a jury on “imperfect self-defense” in a murder case was harmless error, reversing the judgment and remanding the case for a more thorough analysis, under the appropriate standard.
Justice Joshua P. Groban wrote for a unanimous court in reversing the Third District’s Nov. 10, 2021 decision. Justice Goodwin H. Liu added a concurring opinion in which Justice Kelli Evans joined.
Groban said that where substantial evidence shows that the defendant acted under a good-faith but unreasonable belief in the need to use lethal force in self-defense—which would render the crime voluntary manslaughter rather than murder—there is an entitlement to an instruction on imperfect self defense. The Third District found, correctly, that Nevada Superior Court Judge Candace S. Heidelberger erred in declining to give such an instruction, he said, but then faltered in its analysis.
Justice William J. Murray Jr. said in the Third District’s opinion that the failure was harmless error, under the “reasonably probable” standard set forth by the California Supreme Court in 1956 in People v. Watson, explaining:
“Here, a more favorable result was not reasonably probable given the overwhelming evidence that defendant was not acting in any form of self-defense.”
Chapman v. California
The applicable standard, Groban said, is that set forth by the United States Supreme Court in its 1967 decision in Chapman v. California: where there is federal constitutional error, harmless must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt.
The jurist wrote:
“[W]e hold that when there is substantial evidence of imperfect self-defense in a murder case, the trial court’s failure to instruct on that theory precludes the jury from making a factual finding that is necessary to prove the malice element of murder. The error therefore amounts to a violation of the federal Constitution and is subject to Chapman’s ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard for evaluating prejudice.”
Inconsistency in Opinion
“Had the court properly applied the standards required under Chapman, it could not have found both that Schuller presented sufficient evidence to support an instruction on imperfect self-defense and that the error was harmless based solely on the conclusion that the evidence was so overwhelming as to compel a finding against him on that theory….In other words, if the court believed an instruction was warranted because there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find in Schuller’s favor on the question of imperfect self-defense, the court could not then, consistent with Chapman, go on to find that the error was nonetheless harmless simply because the evidence against imperfect self-defense was so overwhelming that no reasonable jury could have possibly found in Schuller’s favor on that issue.
“Because the Court of Appeal’s harmless error analysis demonstrates that it misapprehended the standard that Chapman requires, we remand the matter to allow the court to reconsider whether the failure to instruct on self-defense was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under the appropriate standard.”
Liu said in his concurring opinion that he agrees “with today’s opinion as far as it goes,” but would go farther and “hold that reversible error occurred here.”
The case is People v. Schuller, 2023 S.O.S. 3009.
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