People v. Belmontes, S004467

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation45 Cal.3d 744,755 P.2d 310,248 Cal.Rptr. 126
Docket NumberNo. S004467,S004467
Parties, 755 P.2d 310 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Fernando BELMONTES, Defendant and Appellant. Crim. 22810.
Decision Date23 June 1988

Page 126

248 Cal.Rptr. 126
45 Cal.3d 744, 755 P.2d 310
The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Fernando BELMONTES, Defendant and Appellant.
No. S004467.
Crim. 22810.
Supreme Court of California,
In Bank.
June 23, 1988.
As Modified on Denial of Rehearing Aug. 18, 1988.
Certiorari Denied Jan. 17, 1989.
See 109 S.Ct. 848.

[45 Cal.3d 759]

Page 131

[755 P.2d 315] Eric S. Multhaup, under appointment by the Supreme Court, Jean R. Sternberg and Kathy M. Chavez, San Francisco, for defendant and appellant.

John K. Van de Kamp, Atty. Gen., Steve White, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., Edmund D. McMurray, Robert D. Marshall, Jane N. [45 Cal.3d 760] Kirkland, Michael T. Garcia and Jane L. Lamborn, Deputy Attys. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

EAGLESON, Justice.

Defendant Fernando Belmontes was convicted of the first degree murder of Steacy McConnell (Pen.Code, § 187) 1 and burglary in the second degree. ( §§ 459-460.) The jury returned special findings that he personally committed the killing, and that the murder was intentional, wilful, deliberate, premeditated, and the result of the commission or attempted commission of the burglary. A special circumstance allegation under the 1978 death penalty law was found true: that the murder was committed while defendant was engaged in the commission or attempted commission of a burglary. ( § 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(vii).) The jury made additional special findings that defendant was the actual killer and had acted with specific intent to kill. The jury fixed the penalty at death; this appeal is automatic. (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 11; § 1239, subd. (b).)

For the reasons set forth hereafter, we affirm the judgment in its entirety.



Prosecution Case

On Sunday, March 15, 1981, the parents of 19-year-old Steacy McConnell found her beaten unconscious on the floor of her residence in Victor, several feet from the unlocked front door. She had telephoned them that same morning to advise that several people, including Domingo Vasquez, had been threatening her.

McConnell died a short while later from cerebral hemorrhaging due to 15 to 20 gaping wounds to her head which cracked her skull. The pathologist testified there would have been sounds "like a cracked pot" associated with the blows which fractured the skull, and blood would have splattered in a manner consistent with the blood patterns found on the door jambs next to where she was found. A single contusion on McConnell's right temple was caused by blunt trauma of lesser force and did not lacerate the skin. It alone would not have caused death and--if it had been the first blow--would not [45 Cal.3d 761] likely have caused unconsciousness. Numerous defensive bruises and contusions on her arms, hands, legs and feet evidenced a struggle. All wounds were consistent with having been made by the metal dumbbell bar in evidence at trial. McConnell's stereo components were missing. The lock on the rear bedroom door

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was broken in. The master bedroom was ransacked; traces of blood were found splattered on the walls, door jambs and a chest of drawers in that room.

Defendant was spending the weekend with Bobby Bolanos in Lodi. 2 Both knew Domingo Vasquez, who was acquainted with McConnell. During the week preceding the murder, Vasquez, Bolanos and others had "partied" at McConnell's house. Vasquez "ripped off" a quantity of amphetamine[755 P.2d 316] pills from her; the party ended with McConnell throwing Vasquez and his friends out of her house two days prior to the murder. The group subsequently discussed their general dislike of McConnell.

Bolanos, who pled guilty to burglary and received immunity from prosecution for the murder, testified for the People. On Sunday morning, he and defendant drove to Vasquez's residence in Bolanos's vintage black Chevy. Vasquez, who was talking on the telephone with McConnell when they arrived, shortly hung up and informed them that McConnell's parents were picking her up and she would not be home that day. Defendant was short of funds, having unsuccessfully tried to pawn a ring the previous week. Bolanos, a seasonal farmworker, was out of work. Vasquez was unemployed. The three men agreed to burglarize McConnell's residence, steal her stereo and "clean house." Defendant was wearing a baseball cap with its bill flipped up, Vasquez wore a stocking cap or beanie, Bolanos wore a checkered Pendleton shirt-jacket. Vasquez's girlfriend, Carrie Lynn Rogers, was present; she testified that as the men departed defendant picked up a steel dumbbell bar which he carried out with him.

Bolanos was the "wheel man" and never entered McConnell's residence; a role confirmed by defendant. En route to Victor, defendant suggested that he alone would approach the house on foot, using the metal bar if needed to force entry. Bolanos pulled over a short distance from the house; defendant left his wristwatch behind, concealed the bar under his jacket and walked to the residence. In accord with the plan, Bolanos and Vasquez waited several minutes, then drove up and backed into McConnell's driveway. Vasquez could not find the key to the trunk. As Bolanos got out of the vehicle to assist Vasquez, he heard repeated knocking or banging noises coming from within the house. They thought defendant was having trouble with the [45 Cal.3d 762] stereo. Vasquez entered to assist him. Bolanos remained in the car, still hearing the rhythmic thumping sounds as Vasquez walked up to the front door.

Shortly, defendant and Vasquez emerged from the house carrying stereo components. Defendant alone was covered with blood sprinkled on his face, pants and shoes. Vasquez "looked like he had seen a ghost." Defendant informed Bolanos he had to "take out a witness" because she was home. He explained that McConnell heard Vasquez and Bolanos drive up, and that he hit her with the bar when she looked away from him, and continued to hit her approximately 15 more times.

Lucy Flores, McConnell's neighbor, observed a black Chevy with distinctive wide taillights back into McConnell's driveway on the morning of her murder. A dark-complected man wearing a stocking cap got out of the passenger side and tried to unlock the trunk. He appeared to have difficulty with the lock, whereupon the driver, a male of Mexican or Italian ancestry, wearing a brown checkered shirt-jacket, got out of the car and unlocked the trunk. The driver got back in; the passenger walked towards the front of McConnell's house and met a third man. Flores did not see where the third man had come from. A short while later, she observed the two men hurriedly exiting from the back door of McConnell's house. The man in the stocking cap was carrying stereo speakers, the third man followed close behind carrying a stereo amplifier. They put the items in the trunk, got in the car and drove off.

Bolanos testified that en route to the nearby city of Galt to fence the stereo, defendant, who was wearing gloves, wiped

Page 133

blood off of the metal bar and his shoes. Defendant threw the bar out of the car window as they crossed a bridge over the Mokelumne river (Bolanos later led police to the location on the river bank from which the bar was recovered). The group went to the home of Manuel Vasquez, Domingo's brother, where defendant changed into a pair of clean pants. One Raul Barron was contacted; he met the three men at the home of Irma Vasquez, Domingo's sister, and purchased McConnell's stereo components for $100. The stereo components were recovered and introduced into evidence; Barron testified he [755 P.2d 317] paid $100 for them to the man wearing the baseball cap who did most of the talking.

Later that afternoon Bolanos gave his girlfriend, Teresa Cobarrubio, $15 from his share of the proceeds from the sale of the stereo. Acting scared, he informed her that he, defendant and Vasquez had burglarized McConnell's residence. The following day Bolanos and Cobarrubio read a newspaper account of McConnell's murder. Cobarrubio testified that at that point Bolanos related further details of the crime, informing her that he had [45 Cal.3d 763] remained in his car outside of McConnell's house, and that defendant had exited from the house with blood all over his clothes, stating he had to "take a witness out."

On Monday, March 16, Vasquez called Bolanos in a panic to advise he had been questioned by police and did not want to "take the rap" for defendant. Bolanos and defendant went to Vasquez's house where the three sat in the living room discussing the murder. Carrie Lynn Rogers, Vasquez's girlfriend (who subsequently married him in jail--and who was a distant cousin to Bolanos) testified that from the kitchen she overheard the men discussing their sortie to McConnell's house, and heard defendant describe how he had first entered alone and hit McConnell several times with the bar, after which Vasquez had joined him in the house.

After the meeting, defendant telephoned his girlfriend, Barbara Murillo. Murillo testified that during the conversation defendant informed her he was "in trouble," relating that he had gotten into an argument with McConnell at her house, become angered and hit her, and that she fell and "went to sleep," although he "didn't mean for her to go to sleep."

Belmontes fled to Southern California where he was arrested by Ontario police six days after the murder. Blood found on the tongue of one of his shoes was tested and found to be "type O"--McConnell's blood type.

Defendant furnished three tape-recorded statements to investigators shortly after his arrest. In the first statement he denied any complicity in the crime, but inquired whether Bolanos or Vasquez had been taken into custody. In his second statement he admitted involvement; claiming the incident was planned as a "stupid little burglary." He had approached McConnell's house alone on foot; when she answered the door he entered and they just talked. He was not carrying the metal bar....

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