People v. Gomez

Decision Date29 November 2018
Docket NumberS087773
Citation430 P.3d 791,6 Cal.5th 243,240 Cal.Rptr.3d 315
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Ruben Perez GOMEZ, Defendant and Appellant.

Lynne S. Coffin and Laura S. Kelly, under appointments 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, Assistant Attorney General, Jaime L. Fuster and David A. Voet, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

LIU, J.

Defendant Ruben Perez Gomez was sentenced to death in 2000 for the first degree murders of Rajendra Patel and Raul Luna, Jr. He was also sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the double murder of Robert Acosta and Robert Dunton. This appeal is automatic. ( Pen. Code, § 1239, subd. (b) ; all undesignated statutory references are to this code.) We affirm the judgment in its entirety.

I. FACTS

In an amended information filed on July 7, 1998, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the district attorney charged Gomez with five counts of first degree murder (§ 187, subd. (a)), six counts of second degree robbery (§ 211), and one count of kidnapping (§ 207). The amended information alleged personal firearm use enhancements in connection with each count. (Former §§ 1203.06, subd. (a)(1), 12022.5, subd. (a).) The amended information also alleged multiple-murder, robbery, and kidnapping special circumstances. (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(3), (17).)

The prosecution withdrew one of the robbery counts before trial, and the trial court dismissed one of the five remaining counts of robbery during trial. A jury convicted Gomez of four counts of first degree murder, two counts of second degree robbery, and one count of kidnapping. The jury found true the special circumstance allegation of multiple murder as well as the special circumstance allegations of robbery and kidnapping in connection with the Patel murder. Although the jury convicted Gomez of the first degree murder of Luna, it acquitted him of the robbery of Luna and the associated robbery special circumstance and personal firearm use enhancement. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the murder and robbery counts relating to the separate killing of Jesus Escareno; the trial court declared a mistrial on these counts, which the prosecution subsequently dismissed pursuant to section 1385.

The penalty phase took place before the same jury. After two days of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of death for the murders of Luna and Patel, and of life without parole for the murders of Acosta and Dunton.

A. Guilt Phase
1. Prosecution Evidence
a. The Salcedo Robbery

Gomez and Xavier Salcedo knew each other from "growing up." Salcedo testified that Gomez came to his home sometime in February 1997 and told Salcedo that he was out of jail and asked for money. Salcedo denied having any money. About two weeks later, around 11:00 p.m. on February 25, Gomez returned with two other men. Salcedo, his girlfriend, Silvia, and their three children were home. Salcedo had about $10,000 in cash in his bedroom closet.

Salcedo testified that he heard someone knock on the back door and that he told them to come around to the front. When Salcedo opened the front door, Gomez and a second man forced their way into the house while a third man remained standing in the open doorway. Gomez told Salcedo, "I want to talk to you, sit the fuck down." Gomez sat on the couch next to Salcedo, and the second man stood facing them about four feet away. Gomez's two confederates held their hands in their pockets, giving Salcedo the impression that they had guns. Gomez had a gun tucked into his waistband.

Gomez said that Salcedo had "disrespected him" when he came to Salcedo's house two weeks earlier to borrow money. Gomez pulled the gun from his waistband, pointed it at Salcedo, and told Salcedo to take off his jewelry. Salcedo handed over his gold bracelet, necklace, ring, and watch. Gomez told Salcedo to close the bedroom door so they could talk. Salcedo went to close the door and told Silvia, who was in the bedroom, that he was being robbed. Silvia testified that she called 911 from the bedroom.

Salcedo further testified that he went back to the living room, where Gomez told him to "sit down" and to "shut up." Gomez pointed the gun at Salcedo, asked if he had any money, and told him to "go get it." Salcedo went to his bedroom, grabbed about $5,000, handed a gun to Silvia, and told her "if they come in here, protect yourself." Salcedo returned to the hallway, gave Gomez the money, and the two went back into the living room. Salcedo pleaded with Gomez to give back the jewelry because it had been a gift from his parents. Gomez handed his gun to Salcedo while the second man in the living room looked on, but Salcedo handed it back and said, "I don't want any problems." Gomez gave back the jewelry, and the three men left with the cash. Salcedo locked the door, turned off the lights, and went back into the bedroom where Silvia was still on the phone with a 911 operator.

Salcedo told Silvia to "grab the kids and let's go," but the three men returned before Salcedo and his family could leave. The men demanded that Salcedo open the door or they would shoot though the walls. Silvia called 911 a second time from the bedroom. Salcedo looked out the window and saw a friend walk up to the house. The friend spoke with the three men. The men started knocking on the door again, and Gomez threatened to shoot through the walls. The police arrived; Gomez and the others ran off around the back.

b. The Patel Murder

In the early morning of May 27, 1997, Detective Sal La Barbera received an assignment to investigate the "northbound Terminal Island Freeway on-ramp between Anaheim and PCH." When La Barbera arrived, the scene was already contained by police officers, who had found a body on the shoulder of the on-ramp, apparently shot and stabbed. Officers found blood about 75 feet north of the victim's body. Two days later, after recovering a missing persons flier on a telephone pole in Torrance, La Barbera identified the victim as Rajendra Patel. The officer spoke with Patel's family and then verified Patel's identity by checking his thumb print against the victim's.

A county medical examiner testified that Patel was shot once in the back of his head at close range, with the tip of the gun barrel making contact with his head. The medical examiner also testified that Patel received stab wounds in the face and neck, and one particularly deep stab wound in the chest. The medical examiner attributed Patel's death to the gunshot wound and the deep stab wound. He further opined that Patel would have been able to walk or run 75 to 90 feet after receiving the deep stab wound, but not after receiving the gunshot wound.

Patel was last seen on May 25, 1997, around 9:00 p.m. at his home in La Palma. The victim's son testified that his father left home in his white Toyota Camry, wearing a bracelet, a gold watch, and a chain. On May 28, 1997, a police officer discovered Patel's car after being directed via radio call to locate a stolen vehicle in an alley in San Pedro. The interior of the car was found burned. A police department criminalist compared DNA extracted from blood found in the trunk of the Camry to Patel's DNA and testified that the blood "could have come from Mr. Patel or any other individual with the same combination of genetic marker types." The criminalist further testified that the relevant combination of genetic marker types "occurs approximately one in 60,000 individuals, so it's fairly rare in the general population."

Witness No. 1 testified that Gomez had asked him to burn the white Camry. (Before trial, the prosecutor asked that Witness No. 1 and three other witnesses not be named in the record, although their real names were used during the proceedings. We likewise refer to these witnesses without naming them.) Witness No. 1 complied with Gomez's request because they "were tight." He took the car to an alley and then poured alcohol on the upholstery so that the vehicle's interior would ignite when he threw a lit rag into the car. Witness No. 1 believed the car was a "murder car" because Gomez had told him to "check the trunk good to make sure there wasn't no blood in it." Witness No. 1 also testified that three or four days before Gomez asked him to burn the car, Gomez said, "I hated to kill that guy because he had balls. He said ‘if you're going to do it, go ahead and shoot me, motherfucker.’ " According to Witness No. 1, Gomez later put "a hit" out on him "for not burning the white car completely" because Gomez "was worried about his fingerprints." Witness No. 1 testified that Gomez brought Patel's watch and bracelet to Robert Dunton's house at least one or two days before he burned Patel's car.

Witness No. 3 testified that Gomez brought Patel's jewelry to Witness No. 3's residence in Wilmington, where her husband traded narcotics for the jewelry. During the transaction, Gomez told Witness No. 3 and her husband that the jewelry was "from this Mexican man I have in the trunk of the car I just killed." Witness No. 3 observed that a white car was parked in the driveway while Gomez was at her home. Witness No. 3 later pawned the watch and bracelet in Las Vegas, Nevada, on June 5, 1997. The police collected Witness No. 3's pawn slip when she was arrested for an unrelated crime on July 2, 1997. Police investigators subsequently recovered Patel's jewelry from the Las Vegas pawn shop.

The police also found three expended .40-caliber cartridge casings when investigating the crime scene on May 27, 1997. One of the cartridges was located between 90 and 100 feet from the body, the second "just a few feet shorter ... probably only a three or four foot difference," and the third within three feet of the body. These casings were later matched to a Smith and Wesson .40-caliber...

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