People v. Cavitt

Decision Date21 June 2004
Docket NumberNo. S105058.,S105058.
Citation33 Cal.4th 187,91 P.3d 222,14 Cal.Rptr.3d 281
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesThe PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. James Freddie CAVITT, Defendant and Appellant. The People, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Robert Nathaniel Williams, Defendant and Appellant.

Neil Rosenbaum, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant James Freddie Cavitt.

Paul V. Carroll, Menlo Park, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant Robert Nathaniel Williams.

Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, David P. Druliner and Robert R. Anderson, Chief Assistant Attorneys General, Ronald A. Bass and Gerald A. Engler, Assistant Attorneys General, Christina V. Kuo, Catherine A. Rivlin and Jeffrey M. Bryant, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.


Defendants James Cavitt and Robert Williams were convicted in separate trials of the felony murder of 58-year-old Betty McKnight, the stepmother of Cavitt's girlfriend, Mianta McKnight. Defendants admitted plotting with Mianta to enter the McKnight home, to catch Betty unawares and tie her up, and to steal Betty's jewelry and other property. On the evening of December 1, 1995, with Mianta's assistance, the plan went forward. Defendants entered the house, threw a sheet over Betty's head, bound this hooded sheet to her wrists and ankles with rope and duct tape, and escaped with guns, jewelry, and other valuables from the bedroom. Betty was beaten and left hog-tied, facedown on the bed. Her breathing was labored. Before leaving, defendants made it appear that Mianta was a victim by pretending to tie her up as well. By the time Mianta untied herself and called her father to report the burglary-robbery, Betty had died from asphyxiation.

The evidence at trial amply supported a finding that defendants were the direct perpetrators of the murder. However, there was also evidence that tended to support the defense theory—namely, that Mianta deliberately suffocated Betty, for reasons independent of the burglary-robbery, after defendants had escaped and reached a place of temporary safety. Defendants assert that the felony-murder rule would not apply to this scenario and that the trial court's instructions erroneously denied the jury the opportunity to consider their theory.

Because the jury could have convicted defendants without finding they were the direct perpetrators of the murder, we granted review to clarify a nonkiller's liability for a killing "committed in the perpetration" of an inherently dangerous felony under Penal Code section 189's felony-murder rule.1 (See People v. Pulido (1997) 15 Cal.4th 713, 720-723, 63 Cal.Rptr.2d 625, 936 P.2d 1235 (Pulido).) We hold that, in such circumstances, the felony-murder rule requires both a causal relationship and a temporal relationship between the underlying felony and the act resulting in death. The causal relationship is established by proof of a logical nexus, beyond mere coincidence of time and place, between the homicidal act and the underlying felony the nonkiller committed or attempted to commit. The temporal relationship is established by proof the felony and the homicidal act were part of one continuous transaction. Applying these rules to the facts here, we affirm the judgments of the Court of Appeal.


Defendant James Cavitt started dating Mianta McKnight in January 1995. Mianta's father, Philip, and her stepmother, Betty, disapproved of the relationship. Concerned about Mianta's late-night dating and her high school truancy, Philip insisted that Mianta move from Oakland, where she had been living with Philip's niece, back to Brisbane to live with him and Betty. He hoped this would keep her away from Cavitt.

After moving back to Brisbane in November 1995, Mianta became upset that Philip and Betty did not allow her to go on dates with Cavitt. Her relationship with Betty in particular had been rocky for some time, and she often told her schoolmates that she hated Betty.

Around the end of November 1995, 17-year-old Mianta, 17-year-old Cavitt, and Cavitt's friend, 16-year-old defendant Robert Williams, developed a plan to burglarize the McKnight house, where Mianta was then living. The plan was to enter the house with Mianta's assistance, tie up Betty, and steal what they could find. The three scheduled the burglary-robbery for December 1. On that afternoon, Mianta purchased rope and packing tape on the way home from school. Later on, she placed a bed sheet outside the house and left the side door unlocked.

Around 6:30 p.m., Williams and Cavitt drove together to the McKnight house. They were wearing black clothes, gloves, and hockey masks and were carrying duct tape. Between 7:00 and 7:15 p.m., Mianta met them at the side door, gave them the rope she had just bought, and told them Betty was upstairs in bed. All three went upstairs. Cavitt and Williams threw the sheet over Betty's head. While Cavitt secured the sheet around Betty's head with duct tape, Williams fastened Betty's wrists together with plastic flex cuffs. Then they used the rope to bind her ankles and wrists together with the sheet, creating a kind of hood for Betty's head. During the process, Cavitt and Williams also punched Betty in the back with their fists to get her to be quiet. Betty sustained extensive bruising to her face, shoulders, arms, legs, ankles and wrists, consistent with blunt force trauma.

After Betty was immobilized, Cavitt, Williams, and Mianta ransacked the bedroom, removing cash, cameras, Rolex watches, jewelry, and two handguns. Before leaving, Cavitt and Williams pretended to bind Mianta and placed her on the bed next to Betty. Cavitt and Williams each claimed that Betty was still breathing, although with difficulty, when they left her, facedown on the bed.

After Mianta freed herself, she turned Betty over onto her back. Mianta claimed she removed duct tape from Betty's mouth. Betty did not move and did not appear to be breathing. Mianta called her father to tell him they had been robbed. She also told him Betty was unconscious. Philip immediately reported the incident to the Brisbane Police Department at 7:44 p.m. When the dispatcher called the McKnight house at 7:45 p.m., Mianta claimed that robbers had entered the house while she was downstairs watching television, had put a sheet over her head, and had knocked her unconscious; that she was eventually able to free herself; that she had called her father to report the crime; and that her stepmother was unconscious.

Brisbane police arrived at 7:52 p.m. Betty was on her back on the bed. She was not breathing and had no pulse. Her hands were bound behind her, and her wrists and ankles were tied together with a rope. Officers attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Paramedics obtained a heartbeat at 8:11 p.m., but Betty had already suffered severe and irreversible brain injury. She was pronounced dead the next morning. The cause of death was insufficient oxygen, or anoxia, caused by asphyxiation. The injuries she sustained were a contributing cause.

During conversations with police and a neighbor, Mianta reiterated her claim that unidentified robbers had somehow entered the house, that they had wrapped her in a sheet and knocked her unconscious, and that she had been unable to untie herself until after the robbers left, at which point she discovered that her stepmother was unconscious. When police secured Philip's consent to conduct a polygraph of his daughter, however, Mianta eventually confessed to her involvement in the burglary-robbery. Cavitt and Williams were arrested on December 2 and also confessed. While being transported to juvenile hall, Cavitt said to Williams, "Man, we fucked up. We should have just shot her." Police found the stolen jewelry, cameras, and handguns at Cavitt's home, as well as black clothing, gloves, and hockey masks.

Cavitt and Williams, who were tried separately, contended that Mianta must have killed Betty after they had left and for reasons unrelated to the burglary-robbery. To that end, they offered evidence tending to show that Mianta hated her stepmother, that Mianta had expressed to her schoolmates a desire to kill her stepmother, and that Betty could have been suffocated after Cavitt and Williams had returned to Cavitt's home with the loot.

Cavitt and Williams were convicted of first degree murder with the special circumstances of robbery murder and burglary murder, as well as certain lesser offenses. Cavitt was also convicted of personally inflicting great bodily injury in the commission of the murder. Each was sentenced to an unstayed term of 25 years to life. (See Pen.Code, § 190.5, subd. (b).) The Court of Appeal, having ordered the cases consolidated for purposes of oral argument and decision, affirmed in an unpublished decision.


This case involves the "`complicity aspect'" of the felony-murder rule. (Pulido, supra, 15 Cal.4th at p. 720, 63 Cal.Rptr.2d 625, 936 P.2d 1235.) As in Pulido, we are not concerned with that part of the felony-murder rule making a killer liable for first degree murder if the homicide is committed in the perpetration of a robbery or burglary. Rather, the question here involves "a nonkiller's liability for the felony murder committed by another." (Id. at p. 720, 63 Cal.Rptr.2d 625, 936 P.2d 1235.)

Defendants contend that a nonkiller can be liable for the felony murder committed by another only if the act resulting in death facilitated the commission of the underlying felony. Since (in their view) the evidence here would have supported the inference that Mianta killed her stepmother out of a private animus, and not to advance the burglary-robbery, they claim that the trial court's failure to instruct the jury on the requirement that the killing facilitate the burglary-robbery mandates reversal of their felony-murder convictions. The Attorney General, on the other hand, asserts that no causal relationship need exist...

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