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People v. Wheeler

Supreme Court of California

September 25, 1978

Crim. No. 20233


 [*262]  [**752]  [***893]    Defendants James Michael Wheeler and Robert Willis appeal from judgments convicting them of murdering Amaury Cedeno, a grocery store owner, in the course of a robbery. (Pen. Code, §§ 187, 189.)

During the noon hour Cedeno withdrew $ 6,000 in cash from a bank and returned with the money to his store. As he entered he was seen to be grappling with another man; after a few moments four shots were fired and Cedeno was fatally wounded. The assailant ran from the store with the money, and entered the passenger door of a waiting car that was quickly driven away. A witness noted its license plate number, but did not see the driver.

At trial the principal issue was identification. Two witnesses to the events inside the store identified defendant Willis as the assailant from groups of photographs and from a lineup, and pointed him out in court. Willis sought to discredit this testimony by exploring various discrepancies between his appearance at trial and the descriptions furnished [****3]  to the police by the witnesses. He also offered an alibi defense.

It was the People's theory that the unseen driver of the getaway car was defendant Wheeler. The sole direct evidence connecting him with that car, however, was two fingerprints found on the driver's door—one on the underside of the armrest and the other on the outside panel. A police expert identified the prints as belonging to Wheeler, but conceded on cross-examination that there is no way of determining when a fingerprint was actually placed on an object. The car in question had been stolen four days before the shooting.

To bolster their case the People also introduced, over objection, evidence of several prior incidents of assertedly similar but uncharged robberies or apparent preparations for robbery in which these defendants and other persons were implicated in varying degrees. Because the convictions must be reversed on other grounds, we do not reach the serious conflict over the admissibility of this evidence.

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22 Cal. 3d 258 *; 583 P.2d 748 **; 148 Cal. Rptr. 890 ***; 1978 Cal. LEXIS 287 ****

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. JAMES MICHAEL WHEELER et al., Defendants and Appellants

Subsequent History:  [****1]  The petitions of all the parties for a rehearing were denied October 25, 1978. Clark, J., and Richardson, J., were of the opinion that the respondent's petition should be granted.

Prior History: Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. A439988, William E. McGinley, Judge.

Disposition: The judgments are reversed.


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