People v. Matlock

Decision Date10 March 1959
Docket NumberCr. 6227
Citation71 A.L.R.2d 605,51 Cal.2d 682,336 P.2d 505
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 71 A.L.R.2d 605 PEOPLE of the State of California, Respondent, v. Earl Fernando MATLOCK, Appellant.

Phil H. Curry, Los Angeles, for appellant.

Edmund G. Brown, Atty. Gen., and Norman H. Sokolow, Deputy Atty. Gen., for respondent.

SCHAUER, Justice.

A jury found defendant guilty of murder of the first degree and robbery of the second degree and fixed the penalty on the murder count at death. This is an appeal (pursuant to Pen.Code, § 1239, subd. (b)) from the ensuing judgment and from an order denying defendant's motion for new trial. The theory of the defense was that defendant did not murder his victim, Max Shayne, in the perpetration of robbery but, rather, acted solely at the request of Shayne who, because he desired to die but did not wish to give the appearance of suicide, induced defendant to strangle him and to take his property so that he would appear to have been the victim of murder and robbery. For reasons hereinafter set forth we have concluded that reversal is necessary because the trial judge erroneously excluded evidence proffered by defendant which was relevant to this theory of the defense. In the course of our ensuing discussion we also consider (as directed by Code Civ.Proc. § 53) other asserted errors which may be pertinent upon a new trial.

Defendant's contention that the evidence is insufficient to support the verdicts is without merit. It is based upon the unwarranted assumption that the jury were required to believe certain testimony of defendant and could not draw reasonable inferences favorable to the People from the evidence as a whole.

For the purposes of this opinion, it is unnecessary to state the evidence in the light most favorable to respondent. Rather, in order that we can properly appraise the effect of the exclusion of admissible evidence favorable to appellant, it is necessary to set forth in some detail his version of the killing and the circumstances which led up to it. (See People v. Dail (1943), 22 Cal.2d 642, 650 (1), 140 P.2d 828.) Such version is as follows:

Defendant met Shayne in 1952 when defendant borrowed $1,400 from Shayne to complete construction of a house. Shayne told defendant that the financing 'was going through the FHA.' (As is hereinafter stated, Shayne was subsequently convicted of fraud in connection with FHA transactions.) In 1954 defendant had also borrowed $350 from Shayne in connection with the proposed purchase of a service station. The trial court struck defendant's testimony that defendant's wife discovered that Shayne's interest charges on the loans were exorbitant and that defendant complained of this to the Better Business Bureau.

On the day of the killing, september 29, 1957, Shayne came to defendant's house and told defendant, 'I think I have got a job for you.' Shayne further told defendant that Shayne and his brother had been 'convicted by the federal government,' had appealed, and needed money. Defendant had not repaid Shayne the $350 but this had been 'discharged in bankruptcy.' Shayne, however, 'explained the bankruptcy was only to give a person time to do something.' Defendant stated that he had been ill (defendant is an epileptic) and unable to work but 'would be glad to start giving him some money' when he was able to work.

Shayne further 'told me if his brother went to prison that he would take care of me and my family. * * * He asked me had I been subpoenaed in court and I told him no. He thought that was funny because I had already turned him in to the Better Business Bureau.'

Shayne asked defendant to enter Shayne's sedan. Defendant got into the back of the car. Shayne drove about, stopped to make a telephone call, and thereafter stopped at a rather isolated spot. He told defendant that he wanted defendant 'to rough up a couple of guys for me.' Although defendant protested that he wanted 'nothing to do with nothing like that,' Shayne persisted in his attempts to induce defendant to agree to 'rough up' someone for pay. It developed that Shayne wished himself 'roughed up.' He said, 'to me it wouldn't make no difference because I have only got about six months to live.' Defendant asked Shayne why, if he wished to die, he did not take poison. Shayne replied, 'it can't look like suicide. It have to look like a murder or accident.' Shayne suggested that defendant strangle him and give the killing the appearance of 'murder-robbery.' Defendant protested. Shayne put his wallet, rings, and watch in defendant's shirt pocket and warned defendant to hide the jewelry because it was readily identifiable as Shayne's. Shayne put ten $100 bills on the seat of the car. Defendant 'began to think then that he was actually serious, and I reached for the door to open it to get out, and that is when he caught me, pulling me back into the car, and he busted my shirt loose * * *; he had really a horrible look on his face. I said, 'Mr. Shayne, I told you I wasn't going to have nothing to do with nothing like that. * * * I am going home.' He say, 'You can't go now; you have got my money."

Defendant then put a cord or strap which had become detached from the back seat of the car around Shayne's neck, Shayne adjusted it, and defendant began to choke Shayne, then became frightened and released the pressure. Shayne said, 'Come on, let's get it over with.' Defendant again choked Shayne. Shayne 'was fumbling on the seat.' Defendant was afraid of Shayne because 'I felt that the man could have been armed, he could have had a gun, anything. Then my intentions was to hold that strap on him until he became unconscious.' When Shayne 'went into a slump' defendant removed the strap. Defendant wiped off the part of the car where he had been sitting 'because I am feeling that if the man becomes to be conscious he is really mad at me and in his state of mind he would probably try to get the police to come out to my house and press some kind of charge against me which was not true.' Also defendant was afraid of 'a syndicate.' Defendant picked up the $1,000 which was lying, with some handkerchiefs, on the front seat. Defendant knotted two handkerchiefs about Shayne's neck so that 'if he comes to he will have some evidence here that actually what he wanted did I started to do.' Defendant then left.

After defendant returned to his home he took the jewelry from his shirt pocket without touching it with his bare hands, 'figuring, as I afore stated, that he (Shayne) would be angry with me, and I wanted to handle it with care, to take it out of my pocket so my hands wouldn't be all over it, and if he would try to start trouble for me, well, I could have evidence right here that I had not had my hands on that stuff.' Defendant put the jewelry in two cans, placed them in his yard, and covered them with leaves. (According to one of the investigating officers, when defendant, after he had given various false and incomplete statements, 'decided that he would show us where the jewelry was,' defendant asked the officers, 'Please do not touch the jewelry because it will show only Shayne's fingerprints on it.'

Defendant's manifest naivete and lack of judgment may have led him to invent the above account of Shayne's death and defendant's possession of Shayne's property in the belief that such account would exonerate defendant; on the other hand Shayne, recognizing such naivete and lack of judgment, may have exploited defendant in the manner which defendant recounted. Defendant's obvious mental weakness and the unusual nature of his story make it more, not less, important that he be accorded full opportunity to corroborate that story by any available admissible evidence.

A material issue in the case was whether defendant murdered Shayne in the perpetration of robbery and, particularly, whether defendant took Shayne's property 'against his will, * * * by means of force or fear' (Pen.Code, § 211). Relevant to this issue is evidence that defendant strangled Shayne and took his property at Shayne's request. Tending to show that Shayne would be likely to, and did, make such a request was evidence that Shayne had substantial reasons for wishing to die, and for wishing to die in circumstances which would give the appearance of murder in the perpetration of robbery. The fact that Shayne faced the possibility of imprisonment furnishes a motive for his desiring death. The fact that a few days before he assertedly requested defendant to strangle him he had purchased a large life insurance policy with a suicide clause furnishes a motive for his wishing to die in the circumstances of his asserted request.

In accord with the above outlined theory of relevance, defendant, to show 'the motive for wanting himself (Shayne) killed instead of having it look like suicide,' offered in evidence the life insurance policy purchased by Shayne some ten days before his death; the policy was in the sum of $250,000 and provided that in the event of suicide of the insured within two years of issue the liability of the insurer was limited to premiums paid. The trial judge sustained the People's objection to this evidence. The People urge that the evidence is irrelevant because defendant did not know of the insurance at the time he strangled Shayne. But the fact that defendant did not act with the insurance in mind does not at all affect the relevance of the evidence to Shayne's state of mind, and the probability that he asked defendant to strangle him. Furthermore, the fact that defendant, until after he had told his naive story of Shayne's request, did not know of the existence of the large insurance policy with its suicide exclusion clause, would in itself appear to suggest truth as the most logical explanation for an otherwise uncanny coincidence of fact and fiction.

The People also urge that the exclusion of the evidence of insurance, even if it was error, was not prejudicial because such...

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