By: Ray Hill, Professor Emeritus, Santa Rosa Junior College
In August, I reported on a case decision reflecting legislative changes (SB 1437 – 2019) which amended the Felony Murder Rule (California v. Vang, LU Ref. #CAB00171, 8/5/22). Now a perpetrator can only be responsible under the Felony Murder Rule when his/her act(s) was the “actual cause” of death that occurred during an underlying felony (190.2 P.C./198 P.C.). During the course of a kidnapping in the Vang case, the defendant’s wife jumped from a moving vehicle and died from resulting injuries. 2DCA ruled the victims jumping from the car was an independent act done on her own accord and was not a direct result of the defendant’s actions during the crime (even though he was convicted of kidnapping!). Bottom line - she caused her own death. Defendant’s FMR conviction was overturned.
At the end of this article, I mentioned “standby” for other defense appeals on past convictions arguing the SB 1437 changes were not applied in their cases. So, a follow up case just a month later. It stems from a homicide in 1993!
Defendant physically assaulted an 82-year old man in an alley, put him in a headlock, struck him in the head, and rendered the victim temporarily unconscious (“he knocked me out”). Defendant stole victim’s wallet containing $15-$30 and fled the scene. The victim regained consciousness and attempted to walk home. Not feeling well, he went into a store and called 9-1-1. Witnesses testified the victim had a “large bump on this head”. Officers responded and began taking a statement, but the victim’s responsiveness began to go downhill. He lapsed into unconsciousness. EMS was called, and despite resuscitation efforts, the victim died in the hospital 50-minutes later. The cause of death was determined to be lethal cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart beat).
Defendant was convicted under the Felony Murder. He appealed and filed a petition for resentencing. His argument – the victim had pre-existing medical conditions of high blood pressure and cardiac disease. Thus, he wasn’t the “actual killer” (189(a)(1) P.C.), the victim’s bad heart was the cause of death!
3DCA reviewed the Superior Court’s record of the case. Of key importance, a medical expert had testified at trial that the lethal cardiac arrhythmia was caused by either the emotional stress of the robbery, the physical assault committed, or both. Under 190.2 P.C., the court ruled the defendant “personally killed the victim”. There was a logical connection between the underlying felony, the defendant’s acts, and the homicide that resulted. Thus, the defendant was ineligible for resentencing and his 27-year-to-life sentence stands.
We will see what other cases pop up in the future. Alas, the defense bar is always thinking, aren’t they?