Carlos v. Superior Court

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation197 Cal.Rptr. 79,672 P.2d 862,35 Cal.3d 131
Parties, 672 P.2d 862 Celestino Mark CARLOS, Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Respondent; The PEOPLE, Real Party in Interest. L.A. 31487.
Decision Date12 December 1983

Richard Santwier, Morton Borenstein, Deputy Public Defender, Los Angeles, for petitioner.

Maurice Oppenheim, Deputy Dist. Atty., Los Angeles, for respondent.

Howard Schwab, Deputy Atty. Gen., Los Angeles, for real party in interest.


The question before us is whether a defendant can be charged or convicted of murder with the special circumstance of felony murder under the 1978 death penalty initiative if he did not intend to kill or to aid in the commission of a killing. We approach that issue with due recognition of the importance of the matter. A finding of murder with special circumstances requires the trier of fact to choose between only two alternatives--death or life imprisonment without possibility of parole--the most severe punishments permitted under our law. The infliction of either punishment upon a person who did not intend a murder, but only some lesser crime, poses grave moral and legal issues. The ethical principles that punishment should be proportionate to individual guilt, and that a less culpable offender should not be punished more severely than a more culpable offender, permeate the criminal law and underlie constitutional protections. Such principles, finding expression in statutory analysis and rules of construction, will ultimately determine the outcome of this case.

The question involves the interpretation of two provisions of Penal Code section 190.2, enacted as part of the 1978 initiative. 1 The first, paragraph 17 of subdivision (a), provides a penalty of death or life imprisonment without possibility of parole if the "murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in or was an accomplice in the commission ..." of nine listed felonies, including robbery. 2 The second, subdivision (b), provides the same penalties for "[e]very person whether or not the actual killer found guilty of intentionally aiding, abetting, ... or assisting any actor in the commission of [a] murder ..." (italics added) falling within 18 listed special circumstances, including felony murder. 3 Thus, both provisions describe the punishment for felony murder, but neither makes clear whether an intent to kill is an essential element of the special circumstance; paragraph 17 is silent on that subject, subdivision (b) ambiguous.

In resolving the uncertainties of the statutory language, we have concluded that the 1978 initiative should be construed to require an intent to kill or to aid in a killing as an element of the felony murder special circumstance. To reach that conclusion, we first examined the language of the initiative and the manner in which it was presented to the voters; we found that the language and presentation were uncertain, but both tended to support an intent to kill requirement. We next considered applicable principles of statutory construction. One such principle, the general rule that ambiguities in penal statutes are resolved in favor of the defendant, acquires much greater force in cases involving the felony murder doctrine--a doctrine often criticized as imposing punishment disproportionate to culpability and for that reason strictly construed by the courts. Another principle requires us to construe statutes to avoid serious constitutional questions. A statute which threatens to impose the death penalty, or life without possibility of parole, upon a defendant who did not intend to kill, while permitting some deliberate killers to escape with lesser punishment, might on its face violate the cruel and unusual punishment or equal protection clauses. At a minimum, such a statute could not constitutionally be applied to many of the cases falling within its terms. The various principles of construction thus unite to impel an interpretation which finds an intent to kill requirement in the felony murder provision of the 1978 initiative.

In the present case, defendant Celestino Carlos seeks a writ of prohibition to bar his trial on a special circumstance allegation on the ground that the evidence failed to show that he intended to kill or to aid a killing. 4 According to the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing, defendant and Manual Perez robbed a grocery store. Upon leaving the store, they were confronted by Gerald Slagle, a deputy sheriff. Slagle's daughter, the murder victim, was fatally wounded in a gun battle between Slagle and Perez. Defendant, however, left the scene before the shooting started, retrieved his car, and returned to help Perez escape. Since nothing in this evidence suggests that defendant intended a killing, the writ should issue barring his trial on the special circumstance allegation.

I. Proceedings in the present case.

Defendant and Manuel Perez were arrested for robbery and murder. 5 Following a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor filed a five-count information against defendant. Count I, the only count relevant to the present proceeding, charged defendant with the murder of Jennifer Slagle, and alleged as a special circumstance that the murder was committed by defendant and Perez while both were engaged in or were accomplices in the commission of robbery and the immediate flight after committing robbery. (§ 190.2, subd. (a) [p] (17).) At the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor presented the following evidence in support of that count:

On November 17, 1979, two men stopped at the entrance of a Safeway store in La Crescenta. Before entering the store, one man, identified as defendant, pulled a ski mask over his face. At the same time, Gerald Slagle, an off-duty reserve deputy sheriff, was walking toward the Safeway store with his three-year-old daughter, Jennifer. He saw the two men walk past him and noticed that just before they entered the store, one man pulled a ski mask over his face and drew a gun. Concluding that a robbery was about to occur, Slagle took his daughter, crouched down behind a car in the parking lot, and waited for the men to emerge.

Upon entering the store, defendant, the man in the ski mask, approached a grocery clerk and directed her at gunpoint to put money in a paper bag. Perez, the unmasked robber, approached another clerk with what appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun. After the clerks put money into paper bags, defendants took the bags and left the store.

When the two robbers reached an area clear of bystanders, Slagle confronted them. While defendant fled, Perez aimed his gun at Slagle. Slagle fired two shots at Perez, wounding him. Perez then shot at Slagle, who ducked behind the car, and the two men continued to exchange fire. At some point in the shooting Jennifer Slagle stood up and was hit by two bullet fragments. Shortly thereafter defendant arrived with a car; Perez got in and the two men drove off.

Jennifer Slagle died from a gunshot wound to the head. A chemical analysis of a bullet fragment suggested that the fatal shot probably came from Slagle's gun.

Contending that the foregoing evidence did not show that he intended to kill or to aid in a killing, defendant moved pursuant to Penal Code section 995 to set aside the special circumstance allegation. 6 (See Ramos v. Superior Court (1982) 32 Cal.3d 26, 184 Cal.Rptr. 622, 648 P.2d 589; Ghent v. Superior Court (1979) 90 Cal.App.3d 944, 153 Cal.Rptr. 720.) The superior court denied the motion, and defendant sought review by writ of prohibition.

II. The felony murder special circumstance under the 1978 death penalty initiative.
(A) The felony-murder rule in California prior to the 1978 initiative.

Apart from its effect in capital cases, the felony-murder rule in California serves two purposes. First, whenever a killing occurs as a direct causal result of the commission or attempt to commit a felony inherently dangerous to human life, the rule classifies the killing as murder instead of manslaughter. (See People v. Nichols (1970) 3 Cal.3d 150, 163, 89 Cal.Rptr. 721, 474 P.2d 673; People v. Phillips (1966) 64 Cal.2d 574, 582, 51 Cal.Rptr. 225, 414 P.2d 353.) It thus dispenses with the need to prove malice aforethought. (People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal.3d 441, 472-476, 194 Cal.Rptr. 390, 668 P.2d 697.) Second, whenever the felony is one listed in section 189, the rule classifies the murder as one of the first degree. In this context, felony murder substitutes for proof of premeditation. (See People v. Cantrell (1973) 8 Cal.3d 672, 688, 105 Cal.Rptr. 792, 504 P.2d 1256.)

California law prior to People v. Anderson (1972) 6 Cal.3d 628, 100 Cal.Rptr. 152, 493 P.2d 880 granted a penalty jury uncontrolled discretion to determine whether a defendant convicted of first degree murder should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. It drew no distinction between felony murders and other first degree murders. When the 1977 Legislature set out to restore the death penalty in California, however, it faced the task of complying with United States Supreme Court decisions (Furman v. Georgia (1972) 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346; Gregg v. Georgia (1976) 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859) which required a state to establish standards to guide the discretion of the jury. (Gregg, supra, 428 U.S. at p. 189, 96 S.Ct. at p. 2932 (opn. of Stewart, Powell and Stevens, JJ.).) The Legislature responded by limiting the punishments of death and life imprisonment without possibility of parole to cases presenting one or more "special circumstances." Absent a finding of special circumstances, the maximum penalty provided is life imprisonment with possibility of parole.

In formulating its list of special circumstances, the 1977 Legislature decided in essence that a murder which qualified as a first degree murder both because it was a deliberate, premeditated...

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