People v. Contreras

Decision Date12 December 2013
Docket NumberNo. S058019.,S058019.
Citation58 Cal.4th 123,314 P.3d 450,165 Cal.Rptr.3d 204
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. George Lopez CONTRERAS, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

[165 Cal.Rptr.3d 212]

Michael J. Hersek, State Public Defender, under appointment by the Supreme Court, and Denise Anton, Deputy State Public Defender, for Defendant and Appellant.

Edmund G. Brown, Jr., and Kamala D. Harris, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Michael P. Farrell, Assistant Attorney General, Ward A. Campbell and Christina Hitomi Simpson, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

BAXTER, J.

A Tulare County jury convicted George Lopez Contreras (defendant) of robbing and murdering a store owner, Saleh Bin Hassan (Hassan). Defendant was found guilty, as charged, of first degree felony murder ( Pen.Code, § 187, subd. (a) )1 , and of robbery (§ 211). The jury also sustained a special circumstance allegation of murder in the commission of a robbery. ( § 190.2, subd. (a)(17) ( section 190.2(a)(17) ).) Defendant was found to have personally used a firearm (shotgun) in committing each crime. (§§ 1192.7, subd. (c)(8), 1203.06, subd. (a)(1), 12022.5, subd. (a).)

After a penalty trial, the same jurors who had decided guilt fixed the penalty at death. The trial court denied defendant's automatic motion to modify the penalty verdict. (§ 190.4, subd. (e).) The court pronounced a death judgment for the special circumstance murder. Sentence also was imposed for the robbery count and related firearm-use finding. This appeal is automatic. ( Cal. Const., art. VI, § 11, subd. (a); § 1239, subd. (b).)

We find no prejudicial error at defendant's trial. The judgment will be affirmed in its entirety.

I. GUILT PHASE EVIDENCE
A. Summary

Prosecution evidence showed that Hassan was killed on December 29, 1994, while working at the Casa Blanca Market, which he and his wife owned in Farmersville, near Visalia. He had been shot twice, including once in the back. His dead body was lying prone behind the counter. Nothing was missing from the cash register. However, Hassan's wallet and handgun

[165 Cal.Rptr.3d 213]

were gone. Defendant was implicated in the crime along with three other men: Jose Gonzalez (Jose), Santos Acevedo Pasillas (Santos), and Louis Phillip Fernandez, Jr. (Louis). Defendant carried a shotgun into Hassan's store, and was identified as the actual killer. At the outset, criminal charges were jointly filed against all four men. Severance was later granted, and defendant was tried alone. The jury returned a guilty verdict, as stated above.

B. Prosecution Case–in–chief
1. Testimony of witnesses present during the capital crime

A key witness was Jose Guadalupe "Lupe" Valencia (Lupe). At the relevant time, Lupe lived with both his sister, Yesenia Valencia, and her boyfriend, Jose. Jose introduced Lupe to defendant shortly before the capital crime.2

In December 1994, when Lupe had nothing to do, he went with Jose and defendant to pick up the other alleged accomplices, first Louis and then Santos. When Louis joined the group, they used his car.

Lupe described an unusual event that happened when the group picked up Santos that day. Defendant and Santos brought two "long rifles" from the house, and set them in the backseat of Louis's car. Louis was the driver, and Lupe was the front passenger. The other three men—defendant, Jose, and Santos—sat in the back on top of the guns.

Louis drove the group to a store in Visalia. Lupe did not know the store's name. However, he recalled that on the way there, defendant, Jose, and Santos put on makeshift masks. These masks were made of small pieces of cloth, and covered each man's face from the nose down. Because of the masks and guns, Lupe assumed the group planned to rob the store. However, the car did not stop, and no robbery occurred, because there were too many people nearby.

Lupe's account continued: Louis drove to another spot, the Casa Blanca Market, in Farmersville. Santos said he wanted to see if anyone was inside the store. With the mask hanging around his neck, he exited the car and pretended to use the pay phone near the door. Santos returned to the car and said the store was empty. Defendant and Jose each responded by grabbing a gun and going inside.

About 20 seconds later, Lupe heard a loud gunshot. He testified that Santos reentered the car after "running out saying that George [(i.e., defendant)] got shot." Louis made a U-turn, apparently preparing to drive away. At some point, both Jose and defendant, who had not been shot, joined the trio already inside the car.

Lupe testified that Louis drove the group to Santos's home. On the way, defendant said he would "never forget the smile on his face," an apparent reference to the victim, Hassan. Lupe recalled that defendant was smiling and in a "happyish" mood. At Santos's house, Louis dropped off his passengers and left. Later, defendant accompanied Lupe and Jose to their home.

At trial, Lupe described certain conversations that night which implicated both Jose and defendant in the robbery murder. According to Jose, the clerk at the store displayed a gun. Jose said he attempted to shoot the clerk but his gun jammed. Jose stated that he tried breaking into the

[165 Cal.Rptr.3d 214]

cash register, which did not open, and he took the clerk's wallet. After giving this account, Jose showed the wallet to Lupe.3

Defendant incriminated himself on the same occasion. First, he offered Lupe a handgun, which Lupe did not take. Lupe identified the handgun that belonged to the victim, Hassan, as the one defendant displayed.

Second, Lupe testified that defendant said that "when he walked in, he pointed the gun at the clerk and the clerk pulled out a gun and [defendant] shot him." Defendant promised to "get" any informers. Lupe assumed that this threat was aimed at him, and that it meant defendant would "shoot [him] or something."

Like Lupe, another witness, Amanda Garcia, saw events outside the Casa Blanca Market on the day of the capital crime. At 3:00 p.m., she drove from the Kmart in Visalia towards Farmersville, where she lived. Around 3:30 p.m. or 4:00 p.m., Garcia encountered a car she identified as Louis's car blocking traffic outside the market. She stopped five or six car lengths behind the car, and saw two people inside—one in the driver's seat and the other in the backseat. Suddenly, two other individuals rushed out of the store. One of them carried a long object shaped like a gun. Each person leaving the store wore a dark mask that covered the face except for the eyes. Garcia saw a similar disguise on one of the occupants of the car in front of her, after that person turned around in her direction. The pair on foot got into the waiting car, which sped away.

2. Testimony of Artero Vallejo, Jr., and supporting witnesses

In 1994, Artero Vallejo, Jr. (Vallejo), was friends with defendant and Santos. Vallejo testified that on December 29, the day of the capital crime, he worked his regular swing shift in Visalia, which began at 3:00 p.m. and ended between 11:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. After work, Vallejo went to Santos's house. Both defendant and Santos were there.4

Vallejo testified about incriminating statements Santos, defendant, and Jose made the night of the capital crime. Santos told Vallejo that "[t]hey tried to pull a little robbery," that a "shooting" occurred, and that they got "nothing out of it."

According to Vallejo, defendant volunteered that he "shot the clerk at the store," and that the shooting occurred as follows: Defendant held the shotgun in one hand. The clerk offered no cash, and none could be found. Defendant warned the clerk that he would be shot if he did anything. Defendant ended up shooting him. Defendant then approached the wounded

man and saw a smile on his face. Defendant said, "I told you I was going to kill you." Defendant kicked the clerk and shot him a second time. Vallejo testified that, in recounting the crime, defendant acted like "it was no big deal."5

[165 Cal.Rptr.3d 215]

During the same conversation, defendant admitted taking a .25–caliber handgun from the store clerk. Defendant pulled the gun from his jacket pocket and showed it to Vallejo. At trial, Vallejo identified Hassan's gun as the one that defendant had displayed.6

Vallejo testified about other guns that linked defendant to the Casa Blanca crimes, as follows: When defendant needed guns, he would borrow them from Jesus Manuel Fernandez, or "Shorty" (Shorty). One or two weeks before the capital crime, Vallejo went with defendant and Santos to Shorty's home and borrowed a shotgun and a .22–caliber rifle. Later, on December 28, the night before the murder, Vallejo was told by either defendant or Santos that defendant had picked up the same guns at Shorty's house earlier that day.7 The purpose was to "pull a little job," which Vallejo understood to mean an armed robbery, and to get some quick cash. Shorty's wife transferred the weapons at that time.8

Vallejo's testimony also encompassed his contact with the other perpetrators, Jose and Louis, the night that Hassan was killed. Specifically, Jose and Louis arrived at Santos's house while defendant, Santos, and Vallejo were there. According to Vallejo, Jose discussed events inside the Casa Blanca Market. Jose told Vallejo that "George [(i.e., defendant)] had shot him [(i.e., the clerk)], that he [(apparently, Jose)] couldn't find the money, and that he said he was looking all over the place for the money."

Vallejo further testified that all five men left Santos's house together that night. After stopping briefly at Louis's house, the

[165 Cal.Rptr.3d 216]

group went out to "celebrate" the shooting. They visited a bar named The Break Room, and then attended a party in Farmersville. Vallejo testified that he and his companions each drank alcohol at both places, and that they also ingested " crank," or methamphetamine, at the party. The group eventually split up....

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