People v. Chacon, Cr. 11548

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation69 Cal.2d 765,447 P.2d 106,73 Cal.Rptr. 10
Decision Date27 November 1968
Docket NumberCr. 11548
Parties, 447 P.2d 106, 34 A.L.R.3d 454 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Ralph CHACON, William Michael Noah, and Marines H. Meyers III, Defendants and Appellants.

LeRue James Grim, San Francisco, Ralph R. Lopez, Salinas, and Ollie M. Marie-Victoire, San Francisco, under appointments by the Supreme Court, for defendants and appellants.

Thomas C. Lynch, Atty. Gen., Albert W. Harris, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., and Michael J. Phelan, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

TRAYNOR, Chief Justice.

Ralph Chacon, William Noah, Marines Meyers, and Ernest Garcia were jointly charged with violating Penal Code, section 4500 (malicious assault with a deadly weapon by a life prisoner). Chacon, Noah, and Meyers pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. Garcia pleaded not guilty. A jury returned verdicts of guilty against Chacon, Noah, and Meyers, but was unable to reach a verdict as to Garcia, and the trial court declared a mistrial as to him. After a trial on the issue of sanity, the jury found that Chacon, Noah, and Meyers were sane at the time of the offense. After a trial on the issue of penalty, the jury fixed the punishment for Chacon and Noah at death and for Meyers at life imprisonment. The trial court denied Chacon's and Noah's motions to reduce the penalty to life imprisonment and entered judgments on the verdicts. The appeals of Chacon and Noah are automatic (Pen.Code, § 1239, subd. (b)). The appeal of Meyers is pursuant to a timely notice of appeal.

On April 30, 1967, approximately 14 prisoners were housed in separate cells in the maximum security section of the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad. The maximum security section consists of single cells fronted by a passageway or tier. Guards are stationed at one end of the tier, and on the day of the incident Officers Nance and Fagen were on duty there.

At 10 a.m. five prisoners, Chacon, Noah, Meyers, Roger Smith, and Vernon Byrd, were released from their cells to exercise on the tier. Chacon, Noah, and Meyers wore skull caps with swastikas painted on them. At approximately 10:15 the attention of both guards was drawn to a disturbance on the tier. The two officers observed a scuffle between Smith, Chacon, Noah, and Meyers approximately 65 feet in front of them. Warning systems were sounded and Officer Fagen shouted to the inmates to 'lock-up' (reenter their cells). Only Byrd complied with this order. Officer Knox, who was guarding the isolation cells nearby, joined Officers Nance and Fagen. The three officers saw Noah, Chacon, and Meyers crowded around Smith who was being held on the floor. Each of the three defendants had a knife. Each repeatedly stabbed Smith while the others held him. Noah and Chacon then dragged Smith approximately 40 feet and propped him in front of Garcia's cell. Chacon gave Garcia a knife, and Garcia reached out through a food slot in the cell door and stabbed Smith. Noah, Chacon, and Meyers then went to Noah's cell and locked themselves in. Officer Nance approached Noah's cell where he saw the three defendants laughing. When asked if his 'buddy' had knifed him, Noah answered 'That's what happened, Sarge.' When the officers approached Garcia's cell and asked where the knife was, Garcia replied that he had thrown it away.

The officers found three knives on the tier: two icepick type weapons and one dagger. One icepick had been fashioned from part of a hair brush; the rest of the brush was in Noah's cell. The swastika caps were also in Noah's cell. One officer testified that he saw Meyers throw a knife away before he entered Noah's cell.

Three physicians operated on Smith for five hours. He had multiple puncture wounds throughout his body and was in a critical condition for several days.

The records officer at Soledad testified that each of the four defendants was serving a life term, and that none of their indeterminate sentences had been set by the Adult Authority.

Eight inmates testified for the defense: Noah, Meyers, Garcia, four other inmates present at the time, and the victim, Smith, who was called as a prosecution witness but gave testimony favorable to the defense. Except for minor discrepancies in detail, all gave similar testimony.

The crucial defense was that none of the officers had seen the fight begin and that Smith had started it. Smith and defendants had been together at various prisons, where animosity had developed between them. Before being placed in maximum security Smith had been in isolation near defendants' cells and while there had constantly shouted threats and profanities at them. He had also had trouble with the prison guards. On the day of the offense Smith made a homosexual advance to Meyers. Noah told Smith to stop it. Smith then drew a knife and attacked Noah. Meyers came to Noah's defense, and Smith stabbed him also. In self-defense, both Meyers and Noah drew their own knives and began stabbing Smith in return. Chacon then intervened in an attempt to break up the fight. He first struck Smith with his fist, stunning him and causing him to drop his knife. Chacon then picked up the knife to keep it from Smith, while continuing to attempt to break up the fight. Chacon did not stab Smith. Chacon and Noah then dragged Smith in the direction of Garcia's cell, but Garcia did not stab Smith.

Two psychiatrists testified for the prosecution at the trial on the issue of sanity. Dr. Raymond Hack, consultant at Soledad for the past 12 years, testified that he had examined Chacon, Noah, and Meyers and that on the basis of his examinations and a review of their records it was his opinion that each was sane at the time of the assault. Dr. Robert Noce, a psychiatrist employed by the Monterey County Hospital, testified that on the basis of his examination of the three defendants, it was his opinion that each had a sociopathic personality, but was sane at the time of the offense.

Three inmates in addition to Meyers and Noah testified for the defense. Inmates Garrett and Branch testified that they had seen Noah often act so erratically that each considered him insane. Inmate Solis testified for defendant Chacon that he too often acted erratically and often went into 'twilight zones' in which he became extremely noncommunicative. Noah and Meyers testified that they had never described the incident to the psychiatrists.

At the trial on the issue of penalty the prosecution submitted its case on the evidence at the trial on the issue of guilt and the trial on the issue of sanity. Chacon, Noah, and Meyers each testified in his own behalf.

At the outset we note that with respect to Chacon and Noah, there was error such as that condemned in Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968) 391 U.S. 510, 521--523, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20 L.Ed.2d 776.

Five of the nine jurors were excused for cause on the ground of their opposition to the death penalty before they had made it 'unmistakably clear' that they would 'automatically' refuse to vote for the death penalty. (Witherspoon v. Illinois, supra, 391 U.S. 510, 522 fn. 21, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20 L.Ed.2d 776.) One juror was excused when she answered, 'I think I would,' when asked whether she 'would * * * have any objection to rendering a death verdict' if the facts and law warranted it. Three jurors were dismissed when they answered that they 'would not be able to sign the (death) verdict as foreman.' That answer indicated that they would not undertake what they regarded as the greater moral burden of the jury foreman, but it did not show that they would have refused to vote for the death penalty. 1 Finally, a fifth juror was excused who answered, 'I don't think so' when asked if he could impose the death penalty. He was not allowed to give an unambiguous yes or no answer to the question. This error would require at the least a new trial for Chacon and Noah on the issue of penalty.

We have concluded, however, that all three judgments must be reversed as to both guilt and penalty on the ground that the refusal of the trial judge to provide separate counsel for each defendant deprived them of the right to the effective assistance of counsel.

The four defendants appeared at their arraignment without counsel. The court appointed Mr. Ralph Lopez to represent all of them. Mr. Lopez had been admitted to practice for only about six months before the trial. He represents Meyers on this appeal. Other counsel were appointed to represent Chacon and Noah on appeal. After a brief consultation with Mr. Lopez, Chacon, Noah, and Meyers pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity; Garcia pleaded not guilty. At their next appearance, Mr. Lopez informed the court that Chacon and Noah wished to represent themselves, that Garcia, who was not present, wished separate counsel, and that only Meyers still wished Mr. Lopez to represent him. 2

After briefly questioning Chacon and Noah, the court dismissed Mr. Lopez as their counsel but appointed him to act as their advisor during the trial. On the day set for trial, Mr. Lopez informed the court that Chacon and Noah had changed their minds, that they wanted him to represent them as well as Meyers, and that he was willing to do so because he was already familiar with the case. With the consent of Chacon and Noah, the court reappointed Mr. Lopez, and the trial proceeded. At no time did the court indicate to either Chacon, Noah, or Meyers that separate counsel might be appointed for each of them. The only choice they had was to accept Mr. Lopez or proceed without an attorney.

The right to counsel at trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799) and article 1, section 13 of the California Constitution does not include an automatic right to separate counsel for each codefendant. One...

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