People v. Vargas

Decision Date13 July 2020
Docket NumberS101247
Citation468 P.3d 1121,265 Cal.Rptr.3d 604,9 Cal.5th 793
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Eduardo David VARGAS, Defendant and Appellant.

Russell S. Babcock, San Diego, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Julie L. Garland, Assistant Attorney General, Robin Urbanski, Michael T. Murphy, Holly D. Wilkens and Kristen Kinnaird Chenelia, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Cuéllar, J.

Defendant Eduardo David Vargas was convicted of one count of first degree murder ( Pen. Code,1 § 187, subd. (a) ), six counts of robbery (§§ 211, 212.5, subd. (c)), one count of attempted robbery (§§ 664, 211), two counts of active participation in a criminal street gang (§ 186.22, subd. (a), defined at the time of the offense as "street terrorism"), and one count of possessing a firearm while on probation (former § 12021, subd. (d)). The jury also found true a robbery-murder special-circumstance allegation. (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(A).) The People alleged as well, and the jury found true, allegations that defendant personally discharged a firearm causing death during the robbery murder (§ 12022.53, subd. (d)), and that the crimes were committed with the intent to promote a criminal street gang (§§ 186.22, subd. (b), 12022.53, subds. (b), (e)(1)). After a penalty trial, the jury returned a verdict of death. The trial court denied the automatic application to modify the verdict (§ 190.4, subd. (e)) and, on October 4, 2001, sentenced defendant to death. This appeal is automatic. (§ 1239, subd. (b).) We affirm the judgment.

A. Guilt Phase
1. Prosecution Case
a. March 30, 1999

i. Baek and Kim

Realtor John Baek met with contractor Hong Kim on March 30, 1999 to inspect an abandoned property in Santa Ana. While Baek and Kim spoke, two men entered the property. One of the men, whom Baek later identified as defendant, pointed a gun at Baek and ordered him to give the men everything he had. Baek gave the men his pager and wallet, which contained cash and credit cards.2 Kim raised his hands in the air after seeing the two men enter with a gun, and his cell phone and checkbook were taken from him. After the two men left, Baek called the police using the cell phone in his car.

Perly Abdulnour, owner of WorldNet Pager, testified that on the afternoon of March 30, 1999, three men came into his store. One of them, Eloy Gonzalez, with whom Abdulnour was familiar, wanted to pay his bill. The other two men wished to purchase pagers. Abdulnour accepted a $27.00 credit card payment on Gonzalez's account for "air time." The other two men, Matthew Miller,3 and a man who identified himself on the pager application as "Carlos Juan Rodriguez," each purchased a pager. The pagers were collectively worth approximately $240.00.

Baek described the gunman to police as a black-haired male with a "light complexion," about five feet 10 inches tall, weighing 150 pounds. Baek described the individual who was not wielding the gun as a black-haired Caucasian male weighing approximately 180 pounds, with a height of five feet nine inches. On April 8, 1999, Baek was shown a photo lineup, and he identified defendant as the gunman. Baek also identified two photographs, including one of Matthew Miller, as possible images of the nongunman involved in the robbery. Baek attended a live lineup at the Orange County Jail, where he again identified defendant as the gunman. On April 12, 1999, Abdulnour identified the three men through a photo lineup as defendant, Gonzalez, and Miller, and he identified defendant at trial.

ii. Hill and Wilson

Shortly before midnight on March 30, 1999, Leavon Hill and his stepson Cornelius Wilson were working on Hill's truck in front of his home in Santa Ana. Three men walked up to Hill, whose back was to the street, and Wilson — who was getting jumper cables from the trunk. By the time Hill noticed the three men, they were directly in front of his truck. As Hill commented that it was a strange time of night to be out walking, "one of the gentlemen pulled [a] gun on" Hill. Hill described the gun as "all black." The man holding the gun then "left [Hill] and he went after [Hill's] son," and one of the two other men who had walked up to Hill and Wilson told Hill, " ‘if you move, I am going to shoot you.’ "

Hill had been slowly walking backwards toward his home and, despite the warnings that he would be shot if he moved, decided to run into his home anyway to call the police. After Hill ran into his home, Wilson ran away down the street. At some point during the altercation, the first man, who had been holding the black gun, stole Hill's wallet. One of the men, the one who had told Hill he would be shot if he tried to move, attempted to take the stereo from Hill's truck but was unable to complete the task before all three men left the area; the stereo was found on the seat of the truck, although it had been installed prior to Hill and Wilson's altercation with the three men.

Hill described the gunman as about five foot nine or ten, and 165 or 170 pounds. Hill identified defendant as the gunman at a photo lineup on April 13, 1999, and also identified the gunman as defendant at trial. Hill described the man who removed the stereo and told Hill he would be shot if he tried to move as the tallest of the three men, standing at about six feet. Hill was unable to identify anyone else at the photo lineup. Wilson recognized images of both Miller and Gonzalez from the April 13, 1999 photo lineup, but he failed to make a positive identification of either. Fingerprints taken from the stereo in Hill's truck matched Gonzalez.

b. April 1, 1999

In the early evening hours of April 1, 1999, Laura Espinoza and Amor Gonzalez4 used drugs together and went to a shopping mall, after which they responded to Gonzalez's page and picked up Gonzalez, defendant, and Miller from defendant's apartment. Espinoza stopped to pick up an additional passenger, but that person was not home. She then went to her apartment complex in Tustin, across the street from the Santa Ana Zoo, to pick up a sweater and some CDs. Espinoza parked in the zoo parking lot, then went into her home at around 8:45 p.m. to retrieve the items for which she had stopped, and to page a friend. Once Espinoza left the car, defendant and Miller also got out of the car and walked across the street. When Espinoza returned to the car, the three men — defendant, Miller, and Gonzalez — were gone.

At around 8:00 p.m., Matthew Stukkie and Jesse Muro were walking down Main Street in Tustin, headed away from Stukkie's house, which was located approximately two blocks from the Santa Ana Zoo. As Stukkie and Muro walked past the zoo, they saw Espinoza's car parked across the street in the zoo's parking lot. Muro noticed "a couple people" with shaved heads near the car, and he pointed them out to Stukkie because he "didn't want [any] trouble." Stukkie noted one of the men was tall and slender, while another was stockier and wore a red, Pendleton-style shirt. Immediately after noticing the men, "a couple guys" approached Stukkie and Muro, held "guns to [their] heads, ... and told [them], ‘don't look back; don't look at our face.’ "

The man who held a gun to Stukkie's head repeatedly asked Stukkie for money, and Stukkie told him he had none. The gunman took Stukkie's bracelet and pager. Stukkie realized that there were three men behind him at some point, although a gun was pointed at the back of his head and he was unable to fully view the men. Stukkie then heard a gunshot and a scream. Prior to hearing these sounds, Stukkie had only been able to hear the man who held the gun to his head, and he had lost sight of Muro. Immediately after hearing the gunshot, the gunman told Stukkie to lay on the ground, keep his head down, and not look back or Stukkie would be shot. After lying on the ground for a few minutes, Stukkie got up and went over to Muro. Stukkie told Muro to get up and, when Muro did not respond, Stukkie realized Muro had been shot.

Police arrived a few minutes after Muro was shot. Stukkie flagged down Tustin Police Officer Robert Wright, the first responder to the scene, and directed him toward Muro, who was lying face down on the sidewalk with a pool of blood coming from his head. Muro was breathing when Officer Wright first arrived, and he was transported to the hospital. He died there shortly afterwards from the two gunshot wounds to his head.

Shortly before 9:00 p.m. that same night, Simon Cruz returned to his apartment complex on Main Street in Tustin, across the street from the zoo. As Cruz entered the complex, a man walked up behind Cruz, pointed a black gun at the back of Cruz's head, and told Cruz to give him "the money." He told Cruz to remove his watch, searched his pockets, and took his wallet. A second man walked up to the gunman and told Cruz's assailant, in Spanish, that they needed to leave. The two men began walking away and Cruz followed, asking that they take the money from his wallet but leave the wallet itself because it contained important paperwork. The gunman turned to Cruz, warning him to " ‘go back or I will shoot you.’ "

Cruz tried to report the theft to the apartment complex's manager, who told him to call the police. Before doing so, Cruz decided to search the complex to see if his assailants had discarded his wallet while fleeing. During his search, Cruz saw a body on the ground near the apartment complex's exit, with paramedics and police already on the scene.

Cruz later described the gunman to the police as a Spanish-speaking male between the age of 18 and 20, who was approximately six feet tall, and thin, wearing a red Pendleton-style shirt and bandana.

On April 1, 1999, Alexei Sandoval, who lived with his wife at the Park Place Apartments on Main Street, was...

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