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California Supreme Court to review overturned murder conviction

Posted on in Criminal Defense

In March, a California appeals court overturned the murder conviction of a man based upon the trial judge's jury instructions. A seasoned Santa Cruz criminal defense attorney knows that misleading jury instructions in a criminal case can deny a defendant the right to a fair trial.

The First District Court of Appeal overturned the murder conviction of a San Francisco man, concluding the definition of the lesser offense of manslaughter at trial may have misled the jury. The California Supreme Court will now weigh the matter. The high court recently agreed to review the appellate court ruling.

Prosecutors had claimed the man stabbed a 28-year-old woman to death in front of her children in October, 2000. The man was charged with murder and the case went to trial before a jury in 2008. The man argued to the jury the allegations could only support a charge of voluntary manslaughter. A conviction for voluntary manslaughter would have only exposed the accused to a sentence of three to eleven years. The man ultimately was convicted of murder and sentenced to 16 years to life in prison.

While the ultimate goal of a jury trial can be seeking acquittal of the charges, a defense strategy can include going to trial to minimize the exposure to prison time when plea negotiations fail. The defense argued the killing was committed in the heat of passion. The accused exercised his right to testify at trial and told the jury he had flown into a rage after the woman told him she had been pregnant with his child and received an abortion.

The trial judge instructed the jury to compare the man's conduct to an average person's actions under the same circumstances. The appellate court ruled the instruction was misleading because it suggested to the jury the crime could only be manslaughter if the circumstances would have provoked an average person to kill the woman. The appellate court said the law requires jurors only to decide whether a person, faced with the alleged provocation involved in the case, "would have reacted from passion rather than from judgment."

The issue will now be decided in the California Supreme Court. No hearing date has been set. If the high court overturns the appellate court, the Justices will also decide whether to remand for a new trial, or reinstate the original murder conviction.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, "Calif. High court takes up notorious S.F. killing," Bob Egelko 17 Jun 2011

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