People v. Caro

Citation7 Cal.5th 463,442 P.3d 316,248 Cal.Rptr.3d 96
Decision Date13 June 2019
Docket NumberS106274
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Socorro Susan CARO, Defendant and Appellant.

Tracy J. Dressner, La Crescenta, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette and Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorneys General, Lance E. Winters and Ronald S. Matthias, Assistant Attorneys General, Joseph P. Lee and Chung L. Mar, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Cuéllar, J.

In April 2002, defendant Socorro Susan Caro was sentenced to death for killing three of her four children. This is her automatic appeal. We affirm the judgment below.


Caro and her husband, Dr. Xavier Caro (Xavier1 ), had four children: Xavier (known as "Joey"), Michael, Christopher, and G.C. On November 22, 1999, Joey, Michael, and Christopher were shot to death in the family home in Camarillo, California. Joey was 11, Michael was 8, Christopher was 5, and G.C. was 1. The Ventura County District Attorney filed a felony complaint against Caro on December 17, 1999, and an information on April 24, 2000. Caro was charged with three counts of murder ( Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a) )2 while personally using a firearm (§ 12022.53, subd. (d)), and a multiple-murder special circumstance (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(3)). Caro pleaded not guilty, and not guilty by reason of insanity.

At trial, the prosecution presented the testimony of Caro's husband. Xavier met Caro in 1979 during her externship in his rheumatology medical practice. They began dating in 1980 and married in 1986. At the time of the shootings, Caro's parents lived in the couple's nearby second home and Caro's mother, Juanita, would often stay over to help with the children.

Early on in their relationship, Caro began working as Xavier's office manager. In August 1999, Xavier fired Caro because, according to Xavier, she had been providing more money than expected to her parents while allowing the medical office's rent to go unpaid. Xavier had also been having an affair with someone who worked in his office. Xavier and Caro had discussed divorce at various points in their relationship, and after firing Caro, Xavier consulted a divorce lawyer. Xavier testified he did not actually want a divorce. Indeed, Xavier thought their marriage had improved after Caro and he agreed in August 1999 to go to counseling, and Caro agreed to take Prozac


On the night of the shootings, November 22, 1999, Xavier returned from work between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. Xavier had dinner with Caro, and they drank margaritas. Joey made a negative comment about his parents' drinking. Xavier and Caro argued: Xavier wanted to discipline Joey, but Caro did not. Later, after Xavier removed the television and videogame system from Joey's room as punishment, Xavier and Caro continued their argument. Caro accused Xavier of not loving her, and not respecting her. Xavier said he was leaving. Caro grabbed him by the shoulders, slid to the floor, and held his ankles as he pulled away from her. Juanita came up the stairs and yelled, "Get out, you brute." Xavier entered the garage, got in his 1989 maroon Mercedes, and drove away.

Juanita's testimony about the end of the fight that evening was similar, though she testified that Xavier kicked Caro "on the legs" when Caro was on the ground. Juanita told police that after Xavier left, Caro said, "Now, Mom. I have no money now. I don't know what I'm going to do," and "Mom, we're going to starve now." Caro also told Juanita that night, "Well, I guess I'm crazy like he says I am" and "Mom, he says I'm crazy." Around 9:00 p.m., Juanita left the house to return to her home. Caro seemed normal. Juanita returned a few minutes later because she forgot her glasses and left again soon after.

Xavier testified that he drove to his office in Northridge, which was 40 to 46 minutes away from the house. Caro called Xavier multiple times on his car phone and at the office. When Xavier answered the phone at the office, Caro was crying and agitated and asked Xavier to come home. Caro then calmly stated, "That's the thing I've always admired about you, X. You always know the difference between right and wrong." Phone records show that Xavier made an unanswered call home at 9:53 p.m. from the office. Xavier testified that he left the office around 10:30 p.m. to return home. As he left the building, Xavier saw a big white truck parked outside the gate, a truck that, according to the guard records, entered the hospital at 10:25 p.m. Time-stamped videotapes from security cameras at Xavier's work showed a vehicle similar to Xavier's car arriving at 9:24 p.m. and leaving at 10:36 p.m.

When Xavier returned home, he found Caro lying on her right side in a semifetal position on the floor of their master bedroom. Xavier noticed a bloodstained froth around her mouth and thought she had overdosed. Xavier called 911 from a phone in the bedroom at 11:21 p.m. He told the operator that Caro might have overdosed or slit her wrists. Xavier rolled Caro onto her back and noticed a .38-caliber revolver underneath Caro, and several expended shell casings. Xavier had previously purchased the gun for Caro, along with a gun for himself, for self-defense. Xavier picked up the gun and saw a single shell casing in the five-round cylinder.

The 911 operator asked if there were any children in the house. Xavier went to Joey's bedroom and found him lying face up covered in blood. Xavier checked for a pulse but found none. He then entered Michael and Christopher's room and saw them lying together in the bottom bunk of the bunk bed. Their faces were ashen and neither boy was breathing. Xavier returned to the master bedroom and told the 911 operator that his children had been shot. Xavier kicked Caro and yelled at her.

The 911 operator asked how many children were in the home. Xavier went to G.C.'s crib, found G.C. unharmed, and told the 911 operator, "We've got one alive here." Xavier picked up G.C. and went to check the other children again. Joey and Christopher were not breathing, but Michael was taking deep gasping breaths. Xavier attempted to perform CPR on Michael, until a fragment of Michael's skull came off in his hands. Xavier ran out of the room and told the 911 operator that first responders needed to get there fast. He called Juanita on a second phone line at 11:26 p.m. and told her that Caro "shot the babies." Xavier went to the front door where he encountered two Ventura County Sheriff's deputies, who ordered him outside. Xavier had G.C. in his arms and was distraught.

When officers found Caro in the master bedroom, she was surrounded by several pools of blood, a pool of vomit, and expended shell casings. Caro was airlifted to a hospital. Meanwhile, back at the family's home, Juanita had arrived. In a conversation between Xavier and Juanita that an officer recorded, Xavier alternated between a calm and visibly upset demeanor. He stated: "Why did she do this?"; "She killed my best friend. She killed my Joey"; and "She wasn't messing around. She shot them all in the head."

Xavier testified that he always kept the guns in a gun safe, and Caro did not have the combination. In 1994 or 1995, following an argument, Xavier came home to find Caro holding a gun at the top of the stairs in the house. Xavier grabbed Joey and left, but came back when Caro called and said she would leave the gun in plain view for Xavier to recover.

Caro underwent surgery on the night of the shootings for a gunshot to the head. Caro also had bruising on her right bicep, bruising on the inside of her thighs, and a fractured foot

that was swollen and bruised. The forepart of the foot had broken away from the middle part of the foot and was repaired surgically a week later. Such an injury most commonly occurs by landing on a pointed foot so that the foot is twisted, which can happen when falling down stairs. The injury may also occur from a person falling on his or her foot with the person's own weight, or if someone else stands on the foot as the person falls.

The day after the shootings, Detective Cheryl Wade went to Caro's hospital room and recorded the entire two-and-a-half to three-hour visit. Wade asked Caro if she had taken a fall, and Caro said she was not sure and could not remember. Caro said at one point that she "might have fallen down the stairs," and that she was bruised by "wrestling with a boy." But she reiterated on multiple occasions that she did not remember how she had been hurt. A defense expert enhanced the audiotape and believed Caro said, "You have to ask the boys" rather than "wrestling with the boys."

Detective Wade told Caro that her boys had been hurt, that they had died, and that Caro was a suspect. Caro began crying and screaming. Caro asked what Xavier had said and asked where G.C. was located and whether he was okay. Detective Wade later brought Juanita into Caro's room and recorded Juanita's conversation with Caro. Caro said that "X is going to need somebody." Juanita asked, "Why did you do this?" Caro replied, "My babies. My babies. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Lisa VanEssen worked at Xavier's office. She testified that Caro had previously said she did not think Xavier loved her and was worried that Xavier would leave her and the boys with nothing. Around September 1999, VanEssen asked Caro how she was and Caro replied, "Not good. Sometimes I think it would just be better if I wasn't here." When VanEssen reminded Caro of her "four boys that need [her]," Caro replied, "What would it matter?"

Investigators found a gun safe in Caro and Xavier's master bedroom closet; the safe showed pry marks that could not be dated. The door to the gun safe could be opened without entering a combination. There were no testable fingerprints on the gun, but the gun was also stained, so it was unlikely the gun had been wiped down. Caro and Xavier...

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