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Law School Case Brief

People v. Phillips - 41 Cal. 3d 29, 222 Cal. Rptr. 127, 711 P.2d 423 (1985)

Rule:

In determining prejudice and reversible error at the penalty phase of a criminal trial, the test is that any substantial error occurring during the penalty phase of the trial must be deemed to have been prejudicial. "Substantiality" should imply a careful consideration whether there is any reasonable possibility that an error affected the verdict.

Facts:

Defendant was sentenced to death for robbing and shooting two putative confederates in a drug trafficking scheme, one fatally. Defendant was found guilty by a jury of two counts of robbery, one count of attempted murder, and one count of first degree murder with the special circumstance of murder in the commission of a robbery. The case was automatically appealed pursuant to Cal. Penal Code § 1239(b)

Issue:

Where a conviction was proper, was the trial court's judgment on the penalty phase reversible error where (1) the trial court failed to give a reasonable doubt instruction regarding evidence of other criminal activity, and (2) the trial court failed to limit admissibility of criminal activity to evidence that demonstrates the commission of an actual crime?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of California affirmed the judgment of the trial court in the guilt phase and the special circumstance finding, but reversed the judgment in the penalty phase. The court remanded for a new penalty trial after identifying two reversible errors committed by the trial court. First, when admitting evidence of aggravation in the penalty phase, the trial court failed to confine "criminal activities" to evidence demonstrating the commission of an actual crime. Because there was a reasonable possibility that the improper introduction of the alleged misconduct affected the jury's verdict, its admission had to be deemed prejudicial to defendant. Second, the trial court erred by its failure to give a "reasonable doubt" instruction, which tainted all of the other crimes that could properly have been considered by the jury as aggravating factors under Cal. Penal Code § 190.3(b). This error was prejudicial given that the prosecution's penalty phase evidence rested so heavily on other crimes evidence. Because the trial court's errors were prejudicial to defendant, the Court remanded for a new penalty trial.

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