People v. Combs

Decision Date16 December 2004
Docket NumberNo. S033975.,S033975.
Citation22 Cal.Rptr.3d 61,101 P.3d 1007,34 Cal.4th 821
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesThe PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Michael Stephen COMBS, Defendant and Appellant.

Richard C. Gilman, under appointment by the Supreme Court, Oxnard, for Defendant and Appellant.

Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gary W. Schons, Assistant Attorney General, William M. Wood, Sharon L. Rhodes and Robert M. Foster, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.


A jury convicted defendant Michael Stephen Combs of the first degree murder (Pen.Code, § 187)1 of Janine Lee. The jury found true special circumstance allegations of lying in wait (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(15)) and robbery murder (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(17)). It also found true an allegation that defendant committed the murder while released from custody on his own recognizance in an unrelated case (§ 12022.1). After a penalty trial, the jury returned a verdict of death, and the trial court imposed that sentence. This appeal is automatic. (§ 1239, subd. (b).) We affirm the judgment in its entirety.

I. Facts
A. Guilt Phase
1. The Prosecution's Case
a. Introduction

On October 24, 1990, defendant asked the victim, Janine Lee, to drive him and Cynthia Purcell to Calico Ghost Town in San Bernardino County.2 Before giving them a ride, Janine came home to change her clothes and then left in her car. Janine's father, Richard Lee, never saw her again.

The next morning, Richard Lee received a telephone call from a store in Lake Elsinore. Someone had tried to cash a check written on his and Janine's joint checking account. That evening, the police found Janine's body in a remote canyon area near Calico Ghost Town.

A week after Janine's death, the police arrested defendant and Purcell in Arizona after they were involved in an accident while driving Janine's car. In the car and on defendant's person, the officer found incriminating evidence, including Janine's checkbook and a check payable to defendant with Janine's name written on the signature line. That same day, defendant confessed to strangling and beating Janine to death for the purpose of stealing her money and car. Six days later, defendant and Purcell reenacted the killing for the San Bernardino police at the crime scene. The police audiotaped the confession and videotaped the reenactment, and the tapes were played to the jury.

b. Check forgery case

At the time of the murder, defendant faced check forgery charges in an unrelated case. The victim, Milt Jaffey, was the general manager of the Desert Rose Center for the Arts (Desert Rose), a fitness center in Barstow. Jaffey used Desert Rose as his mailing address for his checking account. In June 1990, he left his job at Desert Rose and moved to Long Beach. He instructed the bank to forward the checks that he had previously ordered to his new address, but the bank failed to do so.

In the beginning of September 1990, Danny Smith became the manager of the Torches Motel in Barstow. About that time, defendant rented a room at the motel and began working at Desert Rose as a karate instructor. During the first part of October 1990, defendant asked Smith to cash some checks for him. Smith cashed several checks, including two written on Jaffey's account. Jaffey then discovered that the bank had cashed two forged checks against his account, one payable to "Danny Smith" and the other to "Michael Combs." Both checks bore numbers of a series higher than those in Jaffey's possession.

Defendant was charged with forging Jaffey's checks. On October 16, 1990, the trial court released defendant from custody on his own recognizance. On October 23, 1990, defendant appeared in court regarding the scheduling of a preliminary hearing. On defendant's request, the court continued the hearing for two weeks.

c. Events surrounding the murder

On October 24, 1990 — a day after his court appearance — defendant asked Smith to give him and Purcell a ride to Calico Ghost Town. Because of a prior engagement, Smith declined. Defendant decided to ask Janine, whom he knew from Desert Rose, where she was also an employee. Janine also knew Smith, who took karate lessons.

In Smith's presence, defendant called Janine and asked her for a ride. At her request, Smith spoke to Janine, assuring her that defendant really needed a ride and confirming that defendant was with him at the motel where Smith worked. When Smith left the motel between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m., defendant and Purcell were waiting outside for Janine.

In the meantime, sometime after 6:00 p.m. that evening, Janine's father received a telephone call from a man asking for Janine. He related that Janine was at her grandparents' house and could be reached there. Shortly thereafter, Janine came home and changed her clothes. She drove off in her white car about 7:30 p.m.

Also that same evening, Melvin Krizo was camping in a canyon near Calico Ghost Town. Between 9:00 and 9:30 p.m., Krizo saw a light-colored car enter the canyon. The car stopped about 50 yards from Krizo's trailer. In the dark, Krizo used a 10-power spotting scope and saw a young man and young woman exit the car, open the trunk, and walk around the area. The couple got back into the car and drove further into the canyon until Krizo lost sight of them. Sometime later, the car returned and stopped in front of Krizo's trailer for a couple of minutes before driving back into the canyon again.

The next morning, Richard Lee contacted the sheriff's office after receiving information about the attempt to cash one of Janine's checks. That evening, a passerby flagged down a deputy sheriff after discovering Janine's body in Odessa Canyon, near Calico Ghost Town and Krizo's campsite. Janine's wrists had been bound together with a green, nylon cord. She suffered bruises, lacerations, and abrasions over the upper portion of her body, including her head and neck. A bone on the left side of her face was visible and there was a ligature imprint on the front of her neck. The police discovered an electrical extension cord on the side of the road leading to the canyon location where Janine's body had been discovered.

The forensic evidence showed that the primary cause of Janine's death was strangulation and the secondary cause was blunt trauma to the head. The ligature mark on Janine's neck was consistent with the type of mark that would have been left by an electrical extension cord similar to the one found by police. The scratch marks, bruising, and abrasions on Janine's neck indicated that she had struggled and tried to relieve the pressure on her neck. The blunt trauma to Janine's head was consistent with injuries that she would have received from having been struck with the flashlight recovered from her car. The blood spatter evidence indicated that Janine had been sitting in an upright position in the front seat of her car when she was hit on the left side of her head.

On November 2, 1990, while driving Janine's car, defendant and Purcell were involved in an automobile accident in Kingman, Arizona. While investigating the accident, an Arizona police officer received a dispatch regarding a homicide and car theft in California. Defendant matched the description of one of the homicide suspects. The car defendant was driving matched the description of the stolen car, including its license plate number. The officer arrested defendant and Purcell. In the car, the police found a checkbook belonging to Janine and her father and a military-type flashlight. In defendant's pants pocket, the police discovered a wallet containing Janine's business card and a check from the checkbook made payable to defendant, with the name Janine Lee written on the signature line. Defendant also possessed a green, nylon cord having the same construction and material as the cord that was used to bind Janine's wrists.

d. Defendant's November 2, 1990, Confession

San Bernardino County Sheriff Detectives Mario Lupercio and Dan Finneran went to Kingman, Arizona, and interviewed defendant in the jail there. After he was advised of and waived his constitutional rights, defendant agreed to talk with them. Initially, defendant stated that he did not know who killed Janine and that he last saw her alive in the canyon area. He admitted that he called Janine from the motel and asked for a ride to Calico Ghost Town, and that Janine wanted to speak to Smith because she did not trust him. Defendant claimed that Janine gave him permission to borrow her car to drive to Mexico. He further claimed that he asked Janine to drive to the canyon so that someone named John Tanoya could drive her back to town, even though she did not know Tanoya.

According to defendant, Janine picked defendant and Purcell up at the motel, dropped Purcell off at Calico Ghost Town, drove defendant to the canyon area where Tanoya was camping, and stayed with Tanoya so that he could drive her back to town. Defendant picked up Purcell, and they drove to Mexico in Janine's car. Defendant admitted that, along the way, he tried to cash one of Janine's checks that she had left in her car and that he had committed forgery.

After the detectives informed defendant they had spoken to a number of people (including Purcell) and did not believe his story, defendant confessed. He described how he had planned to kill Janine, and how and why he had killed her. Defendant related that, several days before the killing, he and Purcell decided to rob someone they knew, because it would be easier than robbing a stranger. They planned to kill their victim. They wanted $500-$1,000 and a car. They chose Smith as their victim from a list of acquaintances, but later reconsidered because Smith did not always have money and there were too many people around the motel where he worked.

The afternoon of the murder, defendant decided they should rob and kill Janine...

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