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People v. Vasquez - 30 Cal. App. 5th 786, 241 Cal. Rptr. 3d 882 (2018)

Rule:

California law requires a trial court, sua sponte, to instruct fully on all lesser necessarily included offenses supported by the evidence. The requirement applies when there is substantial evidence that the defendant committed the lesser offense instead of the greater offense. In deciding whether evidence is substantial in this context, a court determines only its bare legal sufficiency, not its weight. Thus, courts should not evaluate the credibility of witnesses, a task for the jury, and uncertainty about whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant instructions should be resolved in favor of the accused. Even evidence that is unconvincing or subject to justifiable suspicion may constitute substantial evidence and may trigger the lesser-included-offense requirement. When the defense requests the instruction, the refusal to instruct on a lesser-included offense may also violate the federal constitution's requirement that the courts afford every criminal defendant a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense. As part of this right, a defendant is entitled to adequate instructions on the defense theory of the case if supported by the law and evidence and has a constitutional right to have the jury determine every material issue presented by the evidence. 

Facts:

On Nov. 30, 2014, at around 12:30 a.m., defendant Tyshaun Vasquez and co-defendant Jordan E. were hanging out in the skate area of Rancho La Cienega Park in Los Angeles. There, they encountered Smith. According to Angel T., the sole eyewitness at trial, when defendant and Jordan saw Smith, defendant said, "let's go get that guy. Let's see if he got money or jewelry or anything like that stuff." The 43-year-old Smith was "skinny:" five feet 10 inches tall and 129 pounds. In contrast, defendant was 19 and "notably" taller and heavier than Smith. Defendant and Jordan approached Smith and grabbed him. Defendant dug around in Smith's pockets. It was unclear whether he took anything. Jordan and defendant then punched Smith about 15 times, knocking him to the ground. While Smith was on the ground, defendant stomped on his head "and like his whole body pretty much" approximately 20 times. Smith, meanwhile, was yelling for help. As defendant stomped on Smith, Jordan picked up a nearby metal trash can and threw it at Smith, hitting him in the right side of the hip. Eventually, defendant and Jordan left the scene. 

Soon after the incident, Joel Williams, then a firefighter with the Los Angeles Fire Department, responded to the scene after being flagged down by a woman in the park. Williams saw that the man on the ground, whom he later identified as Smith, needed medical attention. Williams moved the trash can he found on Smith's body and after performing a standard examination, determined that Smith was dead.

Kevin Young, a medical examiner for the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, performed the autopsy. Young noted a variety of external injuries to Smith's body: trauma on both sides of his head; abrasions on his forehead, temple, and cheek; lacerations on the side of his eye; a swollen right ear with a hematoma and blood and abrasions in front of and behind it; and other injuries. Each of these injuries, considered alone, was nonlethal. All were premortem.

Defendant was charged with one count of special circumstance first degree murder and one count of attempted second degree robbery. At trial in California state court, defense counsel requested an instruction on the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter, conceding that defendant administered a beating that killed Smith but arguing that defendant was not subjectively aware his actions could be deadly because Smith had a hidden spinal injury (metal rods had been placed in his neck in a prior surgery), the fatal injury was immediately adjacent to the metal rods, and Smith's other injuries were relatively minor. The trial court denied that request but granted defendant's request to instruct on second degree murder. The jury convicted defendant of second degree murder. Defendant moved for a new trial, again arguing that the trial court should have instructed the jury on involuntary manslaughter. The trial court denied the motion. Defendant appealed.

Issue:

Was the trial court's refusal to instruct on involuntary manslaughter as a lesser included offense to murder erroneous and prejudicial to defendant?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed the trial court's judgment and remanded the matter for retrial. The trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter because there was substantial evidence from which a reasonable juror could have doubted that defendant was subjectively aware the beating could kill the victim, given that the medical examiner testified that almost all of the victim's injuries—taken alone—were nonlethal, and that the victim had a hidden spinal injury. In addition, the trial court's instructional error was prejudicial because there was a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have voted to convict defendant of involuntary manslaughter if given the chance, given that: (1) the instruction embodied the defense theory of the case; (2) the evidence of malice was not overwhelming, and; (3) the jury struggled with its verdict.

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