Tuesday, August 28, 2001
S.C. Upholds Conviction of Gang Member in ‘Single-Bullet’ Killing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A gang member who participated in a shootout that killed an innocent bystander was properly convicted of murder, even though there was no proof as to whether the fatal shot came from the defendant’s gun or that of a rival, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Overturning a ruling of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, the high court unanimously reinstated Julio Cesar Sanchez’s conviction of murdering Reynaldo Estrada.
San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Smith sentenced Sanchez to 25 years to life in prison, and sentenced Ramon Gonzalez to 29 years to life, after a jury rejected their claims of self-defense and found both of them guilty of Estrada’s murder.
Sanchez was prosecuted on alternative theories of premeditated murder and drive-by murder. In California, a willful killing by means of shooting from a moving vehicle is first degree murder.
Estrada was visiting his son’s home, which was near Gonzalez’s. Witnesses said that a Ford Escort had passed in front of Gonzalez’s home, that gunfire was exchanged, and that a stray bullet hit Estrada in the head.
Sanchez admitted being a member of Fontana’s TDK gang, as well as being the owner of the Ford Escort. After initially denying he or the vehicle were at the shooting scene, he admitted firing two shots, saying two people shot at him first.
Gonzalez admitted membership in the Headhunters, a rival of TDK, and also admitted shooting at the Escort. He and Sanchez were both charged with Estrada’s murder.
Weapon Not Recovered
Police said they could not determine who fired the fatal shot because the murder weapon was not recovered, nor were any bullets or shell casings retrieved; they noted that several individuals, one of whom was identified as a close friend of Gonzalez, were picking things up from the street in front of Gonzalez’s house.
The Court of Appeal concluded it was not possible for both defendants to be guilty of first degree murder. It rejected the prosecution’s “concurrent causation” theory, reasoning that such causation would require two distinct acts “that converge and concurrently cause death.”
But Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the high court, disagreed.
“[I]t is proximate causation, not direct or actual causation, which, together with the requisite culpable mens rea (malice), determines defendant’s liability for murder,” the justice wrote. “The Court of Appeal erred in concluding principles of concurrent causation cannot be invoked in a single-fatal-bullet case. The circumstance that it cannot be determined who fired the single fatal bullet, i.e., that direct or actual causation cannot be established, does not undermine defendant’s first degree murder conviction if it was shown beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant’s conduct was a substantial concurrent cause of Estrada’s death.”
Baxter cited cases in other jurisdictions, upholding murder convictions on similar facts in shootout cases. He also cited a New York case in which a participant in a drag race on a residential street was held responsible for the deaths of three people who were struck when the other racer lost control of his vehicle.
There was, the justice went on to say, sufficient evidence to show that Sanchez possessed the requisite mental state for first degree murder.
Baxter rejected the contention that jurors might have improperly convicted Sanchez under the provocative act doctrine.
Smith instructed the jury on the doctrine, which holds that a person who, with implied malice and by an act likely to cause death, provokes a reaction which results in the death of someone else is guilty of that death. The doctrine has been invoked, for example, to convict defendants who engaged in shootouts with the police of murdering innocent bystanders killed by errant shots from the officers’ guns.
Baxter reasoned that since the facts “plainly” established express malice, “there was no sound basis on which to conclude that the jury rested defendant’s first degree murder verdict on a finding that he committed a provocative act with implied malice.”
In a companion case yesterday, the court overturned a Santa Ana gang member’s murder conviction, which was based on the provocative-act doctrine.
Israel Cervantes, a member of Highland Street gang, was convicted of the murder of a fellow gang member shot by five other people following an incident at a party. There was evidence that Cervantes had an argument with a woman, called her a “ho,” and was told by an Alley Boys gang member named Juan Cisneros “not to disrespect his home girl.”
Cisneros drew a gun and threatened to shoot Cervantes, who pulled his own gun and shot an Alley Boys member named Richard Linares. The shooting of Linares wasn’t fatal, but provoked further conflict, during which a group of Alley Boys spotted Highland Street member Hector Cabrera getting in his car and driving away.
Cabrera was killed in a hail of bullets.
Cervantes—whose convictions on several other counts, including the attempted murder of Linares, were not before the high court—wasn’t guilty of Cabrera’s murder, Baxter declared.
The justice explained:
“The facts of this case are distinguishable from the classic provocative act murder case in a number of respects. Defendant was not the initial aggressor in the incident that gave rise to the provocative act. There was no direct evidence that Cabrera’s unidentified murderers were even present at the scene of the provocative act, i.e., in a position to actually witness defendant shoot Linares. Defendant himself was not present at the scene where Cabrera was fatally gunned down; the only evidence introduced on the point suggests he was already running away from the party or speeding off in his car when the victim was murdered.
“But the critical fact that distinguishes this case from other provocative act murder cases is that here the actual murderers were not responding to defendant’s provocative act by shooting back at him or an accomplice, in the course of which someone was killed….
“To the contrary, the acts of the actual murderers here were themselves criminal, felonious, and perpetrated with malice aforethought.”
The Sanchez case was argued by Century City attorney Melvyn Douglas Sacks for the defendant and Deputy Attorney General Warren P. Robinson for the state. Deputy Attorney General Garrett Beaumont made the state’s argument in the Cervantes case, while Phillip M. Brooks of Berkeley represented the defendant.
The cases are People v. Sanchez, S088025, and People v. Cervantes, S083267.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company