People v. Buenrostro, S073823

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Writing for the CourtOpinion of the Court by Kruger, J.
Citation6 Cal.5th 367,240 Cal.Rptr.3d 704,430 P.3d 1179
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Dora BUENROSTRO, Defendant and Appellant.
Docket NumberS073823
Decision Date03 December 2018

6 Cal.5th 367
430 P.3d 1179
240 Cal.Rptr.3d 704

The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Dora BUENROSTRO, Defendant and Appellant.


Supreme Court of California.

Filed December 3, 2018

Michael J. Hersek, State Public Defender, under appointment by the Supreme Court, Nina Rivkind, Nina Wilder and Arcelia Hurtado, Deputy State Public Defenders, for Defendant and Appellant.

Edmund G. Brown, Jr., and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gary W. Schons, Assistant Attorney General, Holly D. Wilkens, Annie Featherman Fraser, Felicity Senoski and Michael T. Murphy, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Kruger, J.

After a jury found defendant Dora Buenrostro competent to stand trial, a separate jury convicted her of the first degree murders of her children, Susana, Vicente, and Deidra. ( Pen. Code, § 187.) The jury found true three multiple-murder special-circumstance allegations (id. , § 190.2, subd. (a)(3) ) and allegations that defendant personally used a knife in the commission of each murder (id. , §§ 1192.7, subd. (c)(23), 12022, subd. (b) ). After a penalty trial, the same jury returned a verdict of death. The trial court denied defendant’s motion for a new trial and for modification of the verdict (id. , § 190.4, subd. (e) ) and sentenced her to death.

240 Cal.Rptr.3d 712

This appeal is automatic. (Id ., § 1239, subd. (b).)

We affirm the judgment as to guilt, vacate two of the three multiple-murder special-circumstance findings, reverse the judgment as to the sentence of death, and remand the matter for a new penalty determination.


A. Guilt Phase

The bodies of the three victims were found on October 27, 1994. Each victim had suffered fatal stab wounds. Beginning on that date and continuing through her trial testimony, defendant blamed the murders on her estranged husband, Alejandro Buenrostro (who was known as Alex). In closing argument, however, the defense conceded that Alex, who had an alibi, could not have killed

430 P.3d 1187

the children. The guilt phase focused on whether there was sufficient evidence to establish that defendant committed the murders and did so willfully and with premeditation and deliberation.

1. Prosecution Evidence

Defendant and Alex were married in 1982. Until their separation several years later, they lived in Los Angeles with their three children, Susana, Vicente, and Deidra (ages nine, eight, and four, respectively, at the time of the murders). Alex worked as an auto refinisher painter, and defendant worked for seven years as a file clerk and interpreter for a law firm. In 1990, defendant moved with the children to San Jacinto in Riverside County. Alex remained at the Los Angeles residence and saw the children twice a month.

a. Events of Tuesday, October 25, 1994

Between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 25, 1994, defendant was seen driving in her car with her three children. Around 6:30 p.m., defendant borrowed $10 from a neighbor, David Tijerina, for gasoline because she was going to drive to Los Angeles to see her husband. Tijerina watched defendant drive out of the apartment complex with Deidra in the car.

Defendant arrived at Alex’s residence in Los Angeles, alone and unannounced, about 11:00 p.m. and stayed for two hours. She asked to see Alex’s gun. He removed the bullets, showed her the gun, and then put it away. He asked defendant about the children, and she told him they were fine. At some point, defendant went to the kitchen and then approached Alex, who was in the bedroom. She was holding a steak knife and wearing a red glove. She made stabbing motions with the knife and asked Alex why he was afraid of dying. She threatened to hit him where "it hurts the most" because he had "never given her our separation." He called 911. Defendant swung at him with the knife a couple of times, but he was able to get away and ran outside.

Police arrived within 20 minutes, at 1:15 a.m. Defendant was standing in the doorway of the residence, holding the knife, but complied when police commanded her to drop it. She told the police she was there to pick up her child, whom she accused Alex of taking to buy shoes earlier in the day and not returning. The police observed no children at the residence or in defendant’s car, a dark-colored four-door Oldsmobile lacking a child’s car seat. The police advised her to return to San Jacinto and file a missing child report, and she left.

b. Events of Wednesday, October 26, 1994

On Wednesday, October 26, 1994, about 10:30 a.m., defendant went to the San Jacinto Police Department and reported to Officer Blane Dillon that her estranged husband had taken her youngest child two days earlier and not brought her back. The officer informed her law enforcement could not intervene unless her husband was in

240 Cal.Rptr.3d 713

violation of a court order providing he was not permitted to visit with the child. Defendant left the police department.

Later that day, about 2:00 p.m., defendant’s sister, Angela Montenegro, saw her at a gas station in San Jacinto. Defendant was alone and driving her black Oldsmobile, which had been washed and had water dripping from the back bumper. Neither Deidra nor a child’s car seat was in the car. About 3:00 p.m., defendant’s next door neighbor, Velia Cabanila, saw Susana and Vicente when they stopped briefly to play at her apartment after school. The children told Cabanila their mother had told them Deidra was with their father. Deidra had visited Cabanila’s apartment the day before, by herself. About 7:00 p.m., another neighbor saw defendant looking over the wall of her apartment.

c. Events of Thursday, October 27, 1994

Cabanila’s and defendant’s apartments shared a common wall. On Thursday, October 27, 1994, about 3:00 a.m., Cabanila heard a "really loud thump," but no other noise, coming from defendant’s living room.

At 6:40 a.m., defendant entered the San Jacinto Police Department and reported to the desk clerk her husband was at her apartment with a knife. Police were immediately dispatched. The officers entered the apartment

430 P.3d 1188

and found two of defendant’s children, Susana and Vicente, lying on separate sofas in the living room, each covered as if sleeping. Both were dead, with stab wounds to their necks. Another sofa was standing on its end at the entrance to the hallway, blocking the path to the bedrooms and the bathroom. Defendant admitted she had moved the sofa.

Outside, defendant told police Alex had come to the apartment that morning. She let him in, and he went to the bathroom. Defendant thought he was acting strange, so she went to the police station to notify the police of his behavior.

San Jacinto Police Detective Sergeant Frederick Rodriguez was assigned as lead investigator. At the police station, he interviewed defendant, who was not in custody. Meanwhile, police focused their investigation on Alex. By 9:00 a.m., police located him at the office of his employer in Los Angeles and took him into police custody for questioning. By early the next morning, the police ruled him out as a suspect and released him from custody.2

Later, around 6:00 p.m., Deidra’s body was discovered by children playing in an abandoned post office in Lakeview. A deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department responded to the scene and saw Deidra strapped in a child’s car seat. There was blood and visible trauma to her mouth and neck. An object with a handle, possibly a screwdriver or pen knife, was stuck in her throat.

Officer Dillon arrived at the scene about 7:30 p.m. to investigate. He had received information about the investigation from other officers during the course of the day. Based on inconsistencies in defendant’s versions of events, police focused on her as a suspect.3

240 Cal.Rptr.3d 714

d. Physical evidence

Defendant’s car was removed from her apartment complex and processed for evidence. Her purse and camera case and a red knit glove were discovered in the trunk of the car. DNA testing established that six blood samples obtained from defendant’s car matched Deidra’s DNA profile. Defendant, Alex, Susana, and Vicente were eliminated as sources for the blood.

Hairs found on Deidra’s hand and leg were determined to be similar to defendant’s. Tire impressions lifted from an area near the abandoned post office where Deidra’s body was found matched the tread designs of the three different types of tires on defendant’s car.

e. Autopsy results

All three children bled to death from multiple stab wounds to the neck. Susana suffered defensive wounds to her right hand; four stab wounds to the front of her neck, two of which went into the bone of her spine; superficial cuts to her neck; and a perforation of her left...

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