People v. Sheran

Decision Date17 September 1957
Docket NumberCr. 6069
Citation49 Cal.2d 101,315 P.2d 5
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Rodney G. SHERAN, Defendant and Appellant.

Edmund G. Brown, Atty. Gen., Clarence A. Linn, Asst. Atty. Gen., Victor Griffith, Deputy Atty. Gen., William O. Weissich, Dist. Atty., and Roger Garety, Asst. Dist. Atty., San Rafael, for plaintiff and appellant.

Bagshaw, Schaal, Martinelli & Talley, Bagshaw, Schaal & Martinelli and Thomas E. Schaal, San Rafael, for defendant and appellant.

CARTER, Justice.

Defendant, Rodney G. Sheran, was found guilty by a jury of the second degree murder of his wife, Esme. 1 Defendant's motion for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence was denied by the trial court which, however, granted defendant's motion to modify the verdict by reducing the crime from second degree murder to manslaughter. The People appeal from the order reducing the class of the crime; defendant appeals from the order denying his motion for a new trial. 2

The body of a deceased woman was found at approximately 10:30 on the morning of May 26, 1955, lying on a fire road in the hills of Marin County about four miles from Fairfax. The record shows that the body was identified later that day as Esme Sheran, the wife of the defendant; that her death had been caused by crushing blows to the head which, in the opinion of the autopsy surgeon, could have been caused by several large blood-stained rocks found near the body. It was the opinion of the autopsy surgeon that the death had occurred between 6:00 p. m. and midnight of May 25, 1955. There was no alcohol in the blood of the deceased woman; there was no evidence of any sexual attack or of any struggle having taken place; the clothing was clean and untorn; the body was free of bruises and the fingernails were long and unbroken. A pair of broken colored glasses was found near the body of the deceased.

A search of the Sheran apartment at Greenbrae, Marin County, on May 26th, revealed a note in the defendant's handwriting which read: 'Dear Esme: I have decided to leave for a few days, so don't feel hurt if I'm not here when you return. I will mail you a check, and also one for the rent, so don't worry. All my love, Rod.' A woman's handbag containing the decedent's driver's license and other articles and keys was also found in the apartment.

Mrs. Potter, a neighbor of the Sherans, testified that she had seen them both in the vicinity of their apartment on the aftermoon of May 25th; that she had seen Mrs. Sheran for the last time shortly before 5:00 p. m., and the defendant some twenty minutes earlier. She testified that earlier in the aftermoon the defendant had asked her if she would like to earn 50 cents an hour digging his grave. Another neighbor testified that she had seen the defendant sitting in his red pick-up truck across from the apartment about 4:30 on the afternoon of May 25th and that she had seen the decedent a few minutes earlier. James Oliver testified that the defendant, with whom he had been acquainted for several years, had entered his store at Pt. Reyes Station in Marin County at about 7:00 p. m. on the night of May 25th and that he had at that time purchased a bottle of sweet vermouth and a bottle of burgundy wine and that he had then driven off in the direction of Olema and San Rafael. Captain Volk of the Larkspur police department testified that he had seen the defendant in his truck in the Greenbrae area at approximately 11:30 p. m. on May 25th; that he had not recognized the defendant's truck and had stopped him; that defendant conversed with him and that he appeared perfectly normal; that he had known the defendant for some time. All of the witnesses testified that defendant seemed perfectly normal when they had seen him and that he was not under the influence of alcohol.

The defendant was picked up in his pick-up truck in Oregon about 180 miles north and east of the California border on May 28, 1955. When the officer who arrested him told him that he was wanted in California and that he 'imagined' the defendant knew 'what for,' the defendant replied 'I think so,' or 'I imagine so.' The officers testified that on May 28th in the county jail in Vale, Oregon, the defendant, in response to questions, stated that he last remembered seeing his wife Esme in their apartment when she gave him a package of cigarettes; that they got into the red pick-up truck and went to a store in San Anselmo where he waited while she went inside; that they then drove to the hills and got out of the truck, that an argument started and that after that everything went 'blooey.' When defendant was picked up in Oregon, the officers testified that his clothing was dirty and shabby; that he was unshaven and appeared very tired. The Oregon officers testified variously that defendant's knuckles were 'scarred,' 'bruised' and 'lacerated.' On the right-hand side of the seat in the cab, were articles of clothing on wire hangers and a hand-axe as well as a small, tan plastic suitcase; on the floor was a partially empty can of beans which had been opened with something which had left a jagged edge; a paper bag with some food articles was also found in the truck cab. Several rocks were also found in the cab of the truck. The canvas top covering the bed of the truck was missing; 3 and the cardboard liner from the inside of the cab was in the back part of the truck.

All tests made on defendant's clothing, person and the truck were negative.

At the trial defendant testified that after his wife got out of the truck in San Anselmo he remembered nothing; that he did not recall driving to Pt. Reyes and making his purchases from Mr. Oliver; that he did not remember being stopped by Captain Volk in Greenbrae. He testified that he did not remember driving into the hills; that he did not recall hitting his wife with either his fists or with rocks; that he did not remember writing the note to his wife; that he did not tell the Oregon officers that he and his wife had an argument and that after that everything had gone 'blooey.' Concerning the condition of his knuckles he testified that he told the officers it could have occurred while he was opening a can of food, or at his work of bulldozing. Defendant testified that his first recollection after stopping at the store in San Anselmo was waking up in 'a valley' and later being on a highway outside of Boise, Idaho.

The record shows that defendant had, some two or three years prior to the time of his arrest, been committed to Napa State Hospital at the instigation of his wife. He testified that when he was arrested in Oregon he thought it was probably because his wife had put out a wanted call for him and that she had 'sworn out a warrant to probably return me to Napa.' His testimony was to the effect that his head had felt 'fuzzy' while he was waiting for his wife outside the San Anselmo store; that he thought maybe she had given him a cigarette containing marijuana. He testified that after waking up outside of Boise, Idaho, the next thing he remembered was the officer who stopped him where he was parked off the highway in Oregon fixing a headlight on his truck; that he was driving the truck in the same direction as the officer had gone when the officer, who had turned and was coming back, motioned him to stop and told him he was under arrest. Defendant testified that while he was in the Oregon police officer's car he heard two broadcasts on the radio which informed the police that he had been apprehended and that he was wanted for murder in California. He testified that after the first broadcast he thought he might have hit somebody or run over them with his car; that after the second broadcast he remarked to the officer that 'I hope they know what they're talking about because I certainly don't.' Defendant's testimony concerning the manner of his arrest and his statements was corroborated by the arresting officers.

The medical testimony on behalf of the People was to the effect that if defendant suffered from amnesia it was probably of the hysterical type brought on by some great emotional shock, traumatic experience or fear; that such an amnesia would be of the retrograde type which would extend back to some period preceding the shock, traumatic experience or fear which caused it. In the expert's opinion it was 'just as likely' that defendant was malingering as it was that he was suffering from retrograde amnesia.

The evidence heretofore set forth is substantially all of the evidence and is entirely circumstantial. The testimony taken before the grand jury is part of the record and contains evidence given by defendant's mother wherein she stated that defendant was in great fear of being returned to Napa and that he had said he would rather be dead than go back there. The only evidence directly, or indirectly, linking defendant with the crime is that he was seen leaving the Greenbrae area with his wife in the truck, and his statement to the Oregon officer that he drove her into the hills where an argument started and that thereafter everything went 'blooey.'

The People contend that a trial court does not have the power under section 1181(6) of the Penal Code to weigh the evidence in order to modify a verdict or judgment.

Section 1181(6) provides : 'When a verdict has been rendered or a finding made against the defendant, the court may, upon his application, grant a new trial, in the following cases only: * * * 6. When the verdict or finding is contrary to law or evidence, but if the evidence shows the defendant to be not guilty of the degree of the crime of which he was convicted, but guilty of a lesser degree thereof, or of a lesser crime included therein, the court may modify the judgment accordingly without granting or ordering a new trial, and this power shall extend to any court to which the cause may be appealed; * * *.'

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