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Law School Case Brief

People v. Phillips - 64 Cal. 2d 574, 51 Cal. Rptr. 225, 414 P.2d 353 (1966)


A wide discretion reposes in the trial court to determine the sufficiency of the qualifications of expert witnesses. An appellate court will not disturb its ruling on that matter in the absence of a manifest abuse of such discretion.


Defendant Marvin Phillips, a doctor of chiropractic medicine, treated a child for a rare fast-growing form of cancer. The child's parents had consulted various experts and were awaiting surgical procedures for removal of the child's eye when a third-party told them that Phillips had cured her son of a brain tumor without surgery. After a brief telephone consultation and payment of an advance fee to Phillips, the child's parents discharged her from the treating medical facility and placed her in Phillips' care, where she worsened substantially. The parents eventually dismissed Phillips and attempted alternate medical cures elsewhere. The child died shortly thereafter. Phillips was later tried in California state court and convicted of second-degree murder. At trial, the court instructed the jury on the felony murder rule on the prosecution's theory that Phillips' conduct amounted to grand theft by false pretenses in his ability to cure the child. Phillips appealed, arguing, inter alia, that grand theft was not an inherently dangerous felony and thus the felony-murder instruction was erroneous.


Did giving a felony-murder instruction based on grand theft warrant the reversal of his conviction for second-degree murder?




The state supreme court reversed the trial court's judgment. The court ruled, inter alia, that the felony-murder instruction given by the trial court was erroneous in that such a charge may be grounded only upon a felony "inherently dangerous to life," and grand theft was not such a crime. Furthermore, the erroneous instruction caused Phillips prejudice because it removed from the jury the issue of malice. The prosecution could not successfully argue that even though the instruction erroneously permitted the jury to convict without finding malice, no prejudice resulted.

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