People v. Gonzalez, S234377

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Writing for the CourtCUÉLLAR, J.
Citation418 P.3d 841,233 Cal.Rptr.3d 791,5 Cal.5th 186
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Jorge GONZALEZ et al., Defendants and Appellants.
Docket NumberS234377
Decision Date04 June 2018

5 Cal.5th 186
418 P.3d 841
233 Cal.Rptr.3d 791

The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Jorge GONZALEZ et al., Defendants and Appellants.


Supreme Court of California.

Filed June 4, 2018

Robert Franklin Howell, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant Jorge Gonzalez.

Valerie G. Wass, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant Erica Michelle Estrada.

Jonathan E. Demson, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant Alfonso Garcia.

Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Lance E. Winters, Assistant Attorney General, Steven D. Matthews, Michael R. Johnsen, Louis W. Karlin and Roberta L. Davis, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.


5 Cal.5th 191

A jury convicted defendants Jorge Gonzalez, Erica Michelle Estrada, and Alfonso Garcia of the first degree felony murder of Victor Rosales and found true a special circumstance allegation that the murder was committed during a robbery. The amended information had accused defendants of murder with malice aforethought , a term encompassing two kinds of offenses: murder with the deliberate intention to unlawfully take another’s life, or the commission of a willful act with conscious disregard that the natural and probable consequences of the act are dangerous to human life. ( People v. Elmore (2014) 59 Cal.4th 121, 132-133, 172 Cal.Rptr.3d 413, 325 P.3d 951.) This accusation triggered the trial court’s duty to instruct the jury on lesser included offenses of murder with malice aforethought—such as involuntary manslaughter—if substantial evidence had been presented at trial to support a jury finding of the lesser included offense rather than first degree murder. (See People v. Banks (2014) 59 Cal.4th 1113, 1160, 176 Cal.Rptr.3d 185, 331 P.3d 1206 ( Banks I ).) Defendants also requested instructions on defenses to murder with malice aforethought. Yet the trial court instructed the jury only on first degree felony murder, without instructing the jury on murder with malice aforethought. Nor did the trial court instruct the jury on lesser included offenses of murder with malice aforethought, or defenses applicable to murder

233 Cal.Rptr.3d 794

with malice aforethought. The question we must resolve in this case is whether the jury’s finding on the robbery-murder special circumstance renders harmless the trial court’s error in failing to instruct the jury on murder with malice aforethought, or on lesser included offenses of murder with malice aforethought, as well as defenses to murder with malice aforethought.

What we conclude is that the special circumstance finding here indeed renders the trial court’s error harmless. The prejudice arising from the failure to instruct on lesser included offenses and defenses creates a specific kind of risk—that the jury, faced with an all-or-nothing choice between first degree murder or acquittal, convicted defendants of first degree felony murder even though the prosecution failed to satisfy its burden. Such an error is harmless if defendants cannot demonstrate a reasonable probability that the jury would have—without the error—reached a different result. (See People v. Blackburn (2015) 61 Cal.4th 1113, 1132, 191 Cal.Rptr.3d 458, 354 P.3d 268.) A jury’s other findings, such as the resolution of a felony-murder special-circumstance allegation, may render the error harmless by resolving factual issues such as the truth of a felony-murder charge against the defendant. (See, e.g., People v. Castaneda (2011) 51 Cal.4th 1292, 1327-1329, 127 Cal.Rptr.3d 200, 254 P.3d 249.) Defendants contend, however, that the jury’s decision to convict on first degree felony murder in this case all but compelled the jury to find true the robbery-murder special circumstance because of the jury’s purported desire for logical consistency—thereby preventing us from holding the error

5 Cal.5th 192

harmless. They fail to take sufficient account of the fact that when the jury here found true the robbery-murder special circumstance, it necessarily made additional findings beyond those

418 P.3d 844

necessary for felony murder—such as the finding that aiders and abettors had the intent to kill, or acted with reckless indifference to human life—undercutting defendants’ arguments based in logical consistency. Moreover, these additional findings were incongruous with the jury believing defendants’ non-robbery theories of the case. Finally, a reasonable jury is assumed to follow instructions correctly, and the jury here was given clear instructions that required it to consider the relevant issue—whether the prosecution proved that each defendant committed, attempted to commit, or aided and abetted robbery beyond a reasonable doubt. Given these factors, we can conclude the jury in this case resolved the relevant factual dispute through the special circumstance finding, so the trial court’s error was harmless. Accordingly, we affirm the Court of Appeal’s ruling.


On October 6, 2009, Victor Rosales died from a single gunshot wound to the chest. Defendant Gonzalez allegedly shot Rosales as part of a robbery that Gonzalez planned and attempted to perpetrate with the assistance of defendants Estrada and Garcia. In an amended information, the prosecution jointly charged defendants Gonzalez, Estrada, and Garcia for the killing of Rosales. What the information alleged in count one is that defendants murdered Rosales with malice aforethought, in violation of Penal Code section 187, subdivision (a).1 The information also alleged a robbery-murder special circumstance, which requires a finding that defendants committed the murder during the commission of a robbery (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(17) ), and alleged that a principal was armed with a

233 Cal.Rptr.3d 795

firearm during the murder (former § 12022, subd. (a)(1) ). In count two, the information alleged that Gonzalez shot at an occupied vehicle in violation of section 246. As to both counts, the information alleged that Gonzalez personally and intentionally discharged a firearm, which caused Rosales great bodily injury and death (former § 12022.53, subds. (b), (c) & (d) ).

On the day of the shooting, Alejandro Ruiz went to Rosales’s house and picked him up. Ruiz told police officers that he drove Rosales to meet with defendant Estrada for lunch. When Ruiz and Rosales arrived at the meeting place, Ruiz saw Estrada accompanied by two Hispanic males walking towards the car. Ruiz stated that Estrada pointed at Rosales and that one of the males walked up to the passenger door, produced a handgun, and shot Rosales. The shooter then walked around the car to the driver’s side and attempted to pull Ruiz out of the vehicle. Ruiz hit the accelerator and drove away, back to Rosales’s house.

5 Cal.5th 193

Anthony Stephen Kalac was granted use immunity and testified against defendants. Kalac testified that on the day of the shooting, he had done multiple hits of heroin and then went to defendant Garcia’s house, where he did more heroin. Garcia, Kalac, and Garcia’s girlfriend, Jennifer, then went to a hotel room at the Crystal Inn where they met defendants Estrada and Gonzalez. At the hotel room, Garcia suggested that they smoke crystal methamphetamine, but Gonzalez stated that they had no drugs in the room. In the ensuing discussions on where to obtain drugs, Estrada told Garcia and Gonzalez that she knew a person, Rosales, who they could "come up on" for drugs, which Kalac understood meant "to rob." According to Kalac, Estrada said that Rosales was a drug dealing former boyfriend who had been "physical" with her and who had previously given her a black eye. Kalac observed that Gonzalez, who had been sleeping with Estrada, became "agitated" when Estrada talked about the prior physical abuse. Kalac had $35 on him that he gave to Estrada in exchange for a promise of heroin from the robbery.

Kalac then heard Estrada call Rosales to order $150 of methamphetamine and $50 of heroin. Estrada told Rosales to meet at the laundromat across the street from the Crystal Inn on Prairie Avenue in 30 minutes. After the phone call, Garcia said that he would act as lookout. Garcia and Gonzalez left the hotel room.

Kalac and Jennifer helped load bags into Estrada’s black Cadillac so that she could move to the American Inn, a hotel a few

418 P.3d 845

minutes down the street. Once at the American Inn, Estrada and Jennifer left Kalac in the room, after which Kalac decided to go home. While walking home, Kalac saw Gonzalez and Garcia, who told Kalac that "shit went bad."

Later on the day of the shooting, police officers arrested Estrada and Gonzalez at Estrada’s house. Police found no weapons on Gonzalez or Estrada. Gonzalez’s, but not Estrada’s, hands tested positive for gunshot residue. Police arrested Garcia on December 17, 2009, at his house. Garcia attempted to run away, but police apprehended him.

Kalac later testified that he never saw a gun in the room at the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT