People v. Capistrano

Decision Date04 August 2014
Docket NumberNo. S067394.,S067394.
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. John Leo CAPISTRANO, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Michael J. Hersek, State Public Defender, under appointment by the Supreme Court, and Kathleen M. Scheidel, Assistant State Public Defender, for Defendant and Appellant.

Edmund G. Brown and Kamala D. Harris, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Pamela C. Hamanaka, Assistant Attorney General, John R. Gorey, Joseph P. Lee and

Margaret E. Maxwell, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.


Defendant John Leo Capistrano was convicted at trial of one count of first degree murder ( Pen.Code, § 187 ),1 one count of attempted willful, premeditated murder (§§ 664, subd. (a), 187, subd. (a)), six counts of first degree robbery ( §§ 211, 212.5, subd. (a), 213, subd. (a)(1)(A) & (B) ), three counts of carjacking ( § 215 ), one count of first degree burglary (§ 459), two counts of rape in concert (§§ 261, subd. (2), 264.1) and two counts of forcible oral copulation in concert (§ 288a, subd. (a) & (d)), arising from four separate incidents involving six victims.2 The first incident, on December 9, 1995, involved the murder and robbery of Koen Witters, who was found in his Rowland Heights apartment strangled and with his wrists cut. The second incident, on December 15, 1995, in the City of Whittier, involved the carjacking and home invasion robbery of J.S. and her husband, E.G., and the commission of the rape and forcible oral copulation of J.S. during that robbery. The third incident, on December 23, 1995, in the City of West Covina, involved the carjacking and home invasion robbery of Ruth and Patrick Weir. The fourth incident, on January 19, 1996, involved the home invasion robbery and attempted murder of Michael Martinez, who was found in his apartment in West Covina having been beaten on the head with a baseball bat and with his throat cut.

As to the murder of Koen Witters, the jury found true the two special circumstance allegations that the killing was committed in the course of a burglary and a robbery ( § 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(A), (G) ). The jury also found defendant personally used a firearm ( § 12022.5, subd. (a) ), and a principal was armed with a firearm ( § 12022, subd. (a)(1) ) in the commission of the crimes against J.S. and E.G., and the Weirs. As to the crimes against Michael Martinez, the jury found defendant personally used a deadly and dangerous weapon ( § 12022, subd. (b) ), and personally inflicted great bodily injury ( § 12022.7, subd. (a) ). After a penalty trial, the jury returned a verdict of death. The trial court denied the automatic application to modify the verdict ( § 190.4, subd. (e) ), and sentenced defendant to death. As to the noncapital offenses, the court sentenced defendant to consecutive indeterminate terms of life plus four years' imprisonment for the Martinez attempted murder and 25 years to life plus 10 years' imprisonment for the rape of J.S., and to various determinate terms on the remaining counts. This appeal is automatic. ( § 1239, subd. (b).) We will order the trial court to correct the abstract of the judgment in one respect and otherwise affirm the judgment.

A. Guilt Phase
1. Prosecution Evidence
a. Defendant and His Associates

Defendant was 25 years old when the instant offenses occurred between December 9, 1995, and January 19, 1996. He lived with his cousins Jessica and Joanne Rodriguez at the Lido Garden Apartments in West Covina. Jessica Rodriguez had formerly lived at the Pheasant Ridge apartment complex with her mother. Defendant had helped Rodriguez's mother move out of the Pheasant Ridge apartments in November 1995. Koen Witters, the murder victim, also lived in the Pheasant Ridge complex.

Defendant was regularly in the company of three youths, Michael Drebert, Eric Pritchard and Anthony Jason Vera. Drebert and Pritchard called defendant "Dad." Gladys Santos, a key prosecution witness, met defendant in October 1995. Santos also knew Drebert, Pritchard and Vera. Between December 1995 and January 1996, she saw defendant, Drebert and Pritchard regularly, and Vera less so. One reason she saw defendant so frequently during this period was because she was taking care of a 12–year–old girl, Justine, whom defendant treated as his daughter, although he was not her father.

b. The Murder of Koen Witters on December 9, 1995

Koen Witters was in California as part of his work for a Taiwan-based company called Free Free Industrial Corporation. He lived in a company-leased apartment in the Pheasant Ridge apartment complex. Witters was scheduled to return to Taiwan on the night of December 9, 1995. His coworker, Sheree Chen, dropped him off at his apartment at 4:00 p.m. Chen arranged to return later that evening to collect Witters's apartment key and company-owned cellphone. When she returned at about 9:30 p.m., Witters did not respond to her knocking at the door and calling his name. The airport shuttle driver arrived and also tried knocking. When there was no response, he tried the door and found it unlocked. He and Chen entered the apartment. The apartment was "a mess," according to Chen. The driver looked into the bedroom and got Chen out of the apartment, telling her, "He's dead, he's dead." They called 911 from the complex's security office.

Police found Witters lying facedown on the bedroom floor, clad only in a pair of swim trunks. His feet were tied at his ankles with a pair of athletic socks. His hands were tied behind his back at his wrists with athletic socks and videotape. His mouth was gagged with another athletic sock secured by a plastic bag. There were large cuts to his forearms and a black luggage strap around his neck. In the living room police found a black flight bag missing its strap. A steak knife was found wedged between the mattress and the box springs in the bedroom. The medical examiner determined that strangulation was the cause of death.

Witters's apartment had been ransacked. A suitcase on the bed had been forced open and its contents strewn on and around the bed. Missing from the apartment was an Apple computer, a videocassette player (VCR) and the company's cellphone.

Just before Christmas that year, Michael Drebert told Gladys Santos he, defendant and Pritchard had robbed Witters and that defendant had murdered him. Following this conversation, Santos asked defendant if it was true that he had "kill[ed] someone with a belt?"3 Defendant laughed and said, "... Mike told you, huh?" Santos denied Drebert had told her and again asked him if it was true. Defendant said, "Yeah." Although at first unwilling to talk about the murder, defendant eventually admitting killing Witters, even demonstrating how he had strangled the victim.

Defendant told Santos that he, Drebert and Pritchard had been "scoping" out Witters's apartment to rob it. Defendant told her he killed Witters because Witters saw him without a mask. He strangled rather than shot him because a gun would have been too loud and "shanked" Witters because Witters "wouldn't die." In a later conversation, he told her he had asked Drebert to help him strangle Witters, and he strangled the victim three times before cutting him. Santos testified further that after the Witters murder, defendant asked her if she knew anyone who might want a large computer. She also testified that after defendant was arrested he told her that if she talked to the police, he would kill her children.

c. Robbery and Sexual Assault Offenses Involving J.S. and E.G. on December 15, 1995

About 9:30 p.m. on December 15, 1995, J.S. and her husband, E.G., returned to their Whittier home after visiting E.G.'s family. E.G. pulled into the garage and got out while J.S. remained in the passenger seat. A man inside the garage wearing a ski mask pointed a gun at E.G.'s face and said, "Give me your money." J.S. heard her husband yell and saw a man with his hand outstretched toward her husband. A second man was standing behind the first one. One of the men came over to her, pointed a gun at her and motioned to her to get out of the car. One of the men told her husband, "We're gonna go in the house."

The men led J.S. and E.G. into the master bedroom and tied their wrists behind their backs. The men also used belts and ties to bind the victims' ankles and knees, then laid them on the bed. Two other men joined the two men who had brought them into the house. All the men wore gloves and their faces were covered; two of them carried guns. Despite their masks, J.S. later identified two of the men from police lineups as Eric Pritchard and Anthony Jason Vera. The man who appeared to be the leader of the group was over six feet tall and had a "good build." At trial, a police detective testified that defendant is six feet four inches tall and weighs 210 pounds. (The fourth man was not identified at trial.)

One of the men asked J.S. if they had children, were expecting anyone or owned firearms, and what their neighbors were like. Two of the men, including Pritchard, put guns to the victims' heads and repeatedly asked, " Where's the money?" The men rummaged through the dresser and the closet in the bedroom, and J.S. heard doors and boxes being opened elsewhere in the house.

One of the men removed a bullet from his gun, put it on the bed between the victims and asked, "Isn't it big?" Two of the men, one of them Pritchard, asked both J.S. and E.G. if they would "suck dick" to save their lives.

The tall man who appeared to be the leader eventually took J.S. into the bathroom where he twice forced her to orally copulate him and then twice raped her. The second time he ejaculated into her. Afterwards, he took her into a second bedroom where Pritchard also forced her to orally copulate him. After Pritchard left, a man with a gun came in and stood guard. The tall man came in and out of the room. He pulled down J.S.'s...

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1 cases
  • People v. Woodbury, C078977
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • January 11, 2016 one objective, the defendant may be punished for any one of such offenses but not for more than one." ' " (People v. Capistrano (2014) 59 Cal.4th 830, 885 (Capistrano).) "If, on the other hand, in committing various criminal acts, the perpetrator acted with multiple criminal objectives t......
1 books & journal articles
  • Table of Cases null
    • United States
    • Full Court Press California Guide to Criminal Evidence Table of Cases
    • Invalid date
    ...Cal. Rptr. 3d 80, 446 P.3d 726 (Cal. 2019)—Ch. 4-C, §3.2.2(1); §3.6.3; Ch. 7, §3.2; Ch. 8, §1.1.1(2)(a)[1]; §1.1.3 People v. Capistrano, 59 Cal. 4th 830, 176 Cal. Rptr. 3d 27, 331 P.3d 201 (2014)—Ch. 5-E, §2.4.2 People v. Carbajal, 10 Cal. 4th 1114, 43 Cal. Rptr. 2d 681, 899 P.2d 67 (1995)—......

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